How did these women get this way?

The lives of homeless women in Springfield

click to enlarge How did these women get this way?
The Least Among Us: The Lives of Homeless Women in Springfield, Illinois, by James Traveler. 224 pages. Dorrance Publishing Co., 2021. $35.49.
James Traveler is the pen name of U. William Huck. He was born in Bremerhaven, Germany, in 1949, and immigrated to the United States in 1955. He attended public schools in New York and college at Syracuse and State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. He received his doctorate in zoology from University of Illinois, and then taught at Swarthmore College, Princeton University and University of Illinois. He is a member of Sangamon Valley Writers Guild and Chatham Writers Group.

He has written this book out of his interest in the lives of the homeless. He allows each of the six women in this book to tell their stories, in their timeline and their language. He does not try to interpret any meaning other than what they express to him. He has changed the names of the individuals, but has left other details of their time on the streets of Springfield in the text. This adds authenticity to the stories, and it also shows the extent of services that are currently offered to these women.

I have spoken with the author, to understand his hope for what the book will accomplish with the readers. He is hoping that the raw reality of the lives of these women will move the public from empathy to action, through the work of social services, but even more so through the work of Julie Bartlett Benson, the well-known advocate for homeless people in Springfield. Volunteerism and financial support of her work are the practical responses that he is hoping to generate from the public at large.

After reading this book I find myself disturbed by the stories of women living on the streets of Springfield. I am not disturbed because I was unaware that life on the streets was difficult or that it is happening in the same town that I have lived and worked in my entire life. The only way for me to describe what I took from this book is profound sadness for people who cannot or will not realize their potential to live fulfilling lives. James Traveler, the author, does not judge the women that he describes in this book. Nor do I judge the women by the stories that they tell. But several thoughts came to mind as I read story after story of sadness and abuse and poverty.

My first thought: What is the purpose of writing this book, and who is the audience that he is speaking to? Is this book meant to put a human face on what has increasingly become a topic of community discussion? Is it meant to shake us into action, and finally come together with a comprehensive plan to help the homeless? Will those who have the ability to execute this change ever see this book, and will it move them? Will people find this entertaining, in the same way that they binge-watch and listen to crime shows and podcasts?

The next thought was how, in a country with the highest standard of living, free public education, government-subsidized programs for food and housing, can people deplete their share of these resources? The social service agencies were mentioned prominently in this book as the source of support and help for these women. Helping Hands, Contact Ministries, Washington Street Mission, Gateway House and both St. John's and Memorial Hospitals were cited as places that these women could receive services. What could possibly happen that would change the direction for the lives of these women? Society does not choose winners and losers in the lottery of life. The same society that sees the homeless on the streets, also sees the amazing stories of people who have been born to similar circumstances, but who have lived beautiful lives.

My thoughts then went to the question, if society does not choose winners, then why is my life so different than the lives of these women? How can people born with the same rights, the same opportunities, the same freedoms, end up with such radically different results? The answer that keeps surfacing is that it is not our society, but the cultures within our society. The culture that does not respect women. The culture that does not protect children. The culture that describes addictions very casually, as was the case in page after page of this book. The culture that sees crime and violence as a part of everyday life, is the common thread in all of these stories.

My final thought is how could these lives have ended up anywhere else but the street? The choices that these women made, from a very young age, to their present state, have determined where they are today. The sadness that they have felt and the regret that they expressed to their families, shows a level of clarity, and an awareness of how those choices affected those that they loved. By the same token, the choices that they make today and tomorrow can change the direction of their lives.

This book can be purchased at for $35.49, which includes shipping.

Len Naumovich is a local business owner who is trying to understand social issues that we are facing in the Springfield community. It appears that we continue to treat the symptoms of homelessness, as well as many other social issues, without addressing the root cause of these problems. If we could identify and work to change the behavior and the environment that produces these symptoms, maybe we could see meaningful progress. Contact him at [email protected].

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