Every great story has a beginning. It is no different with First Story Windows. Our First Story begins with two people, a wave, a conversation, a friendship and the idea to be committed to something today.
as told by Steven Bennett
In the city, a balance persists between anonymity and familiarity. There is plenty to see but it’s easy to miss.
Homelessness has always intrigued me and seems like an immanently solvable policy issue. The phenomenon has been extensively researched through various socio-economic and psychological lenses, and generally addresses “populations”. My preferred lens is through individual experience, to know as many people by name as possible and to understand each situation as clearly as possible. I had learned that researchers and policy makers had generally categorized cases of homelessness as chronic, episodic or transitional. Among those cohorts are found various levels of mental health, as well as ability and desire to transform into a steady state of permanent housing.
The first time Lamont and I spoke is hard to pinpoint with certainty. For more than year I had been running 5+ miles daily, often trekking through the park where Lamont would be. Lamont and I had noticed and greeted each other with a friendly nod, but the day we formally met was likely sometime in the spring or summer of 2019 at the end of one of those sweaty runs.
One day Lamont asked, “why are you always running?” I told him “I’m in training, I’m just not sure what for”. We had a good laugh and a lengthy conversation. I found Lamont to be a kind and generous streetwise philosopher. We connected.
As time went by, we got to know each other better, and it came as a bit of a surprise to find out my new friend was homeless. He was always well-dressed and kept himself groomed! The kind and uplifting words with which he inspired others every day defied his distressed reality.
I was happy to help with a meal here and there, toiletries and other essentials, but Lamont never asked for anything except good conversation. Through those conversations, I learned Lamont loved music, cooking and studying his Bible. His primary goal was to get permanent housing so he could reconnect with his son (whom he hadn’t seen for a couple years).
As our friendship developed, Lamont shared more with me about his upbringing, the realities of becoming homeless, living in a camp and the mountain in front of him to get out. He had long ago filed for housing assistance but was still waiting for a reply from the agency.
It was about this time I had to leave Kansas City abruptly to be with my elderly parents. My mom had fallen severely ill, and my dad needed help caring for her in Nevada. I was unable to find Lamont to tell him I would be gone for a while. When I returned the following spring, I learned Lamont had struggled through the winter, including having all his possessions stolen at the camp, however, Lamont remained positive and committed to “getting better”. It was then I became intent on helping Lamont overcome the hurdles that was keeping him in a tent and began thinking critically and collaboratively about what needed to happen to achieve change.
The next few months were a time of transformative learning for both Lamont and me.
My walk with Lamont took me into the camp and introduced me to the community, several of whom I recognized. It was clear that some were passing through, some were here to stay. Some had a shot at getting better, others seemingly not so much. I saw first-hand the dynamics of a community living in a scarcity mindset, and the result of the human behavioral economics that followed.
I offered time, attention and resources to other distressed people in the community, and while they were usually grateful, it was Lamont that caught my interest and didn’t shun accountability. Lamont made clear his intentions were to stay away from harmful people, situations and mindsets and stay committed to “getting better”.
There were great evenings at the “round table” (on the park bench) as Lamont always called it. A particularly fond memory is the day I brought several new harmonicas down to the park and handed them out, including one for Lamont. It was a cacophonous symphony of squalling C Harps that made the squirrels run for their lives! The music, if one were to call it that, was awful, but the ear-to-ear smiles were priceless. Lamont still keeps his harmonica with him and has managed to learn a few tunes.
Late that spring Lamont’s housing voucher was approved, and he was able to move into a one-bedroom apartment. We celebrated that big milestone and got him a few kitchen, bath and bedroom things to get started. Soon after he was able to host his son for overnight stays.
Through conversation and storytelling, Lamont described a time that he had a window washing job and he was good at it. He recalled the good feeling of finishing a job, getting paid and seeing a sparkling fresh window and the matching smile of the business owner.
Since I knew Lamont had developed a rapport with local businesses, it seemed possible that with minimal expense he could be in the window washing business. Lamont liked the idea and by the next weekend, we had a website, business cards, t-shirts and window washing supplies in hand. Lamont and I worked together to sign up the first few customers, and he has been slowly adding customers since.
The project has required Lamont to get out of his comfort zone and develop some new skills, such as signing up for a debit card, making a budget and setting up a schedule.
At this point, Lamont is working on longer term goals including growing his customer base and income, getting his own transportation and possibly moving to a little nicer place.
He is role modeling the success for others in the community and has begun offering them advice and input when they ask him how he did it. Several individuals have offered to come work for Lamont.