Alice (Yihong) Liu was shocked after talking to a man living on the street who was a former professional engineer.
The Meadowridge school student never thought an engineer could ever become homeless.
“I remember him saying it was because of alcohol addiction and also because his family support fell apart and he also had a mental illness,” said the Grade 10 student, recollecting one of 12 interviews she conducted with homeless individuals for a book she published at the beginning of March.
The book called Longing For Warmth was for a personal project that every Grade 10 student has to complete at the school.
Liu wanted to dispel misconceptions that she finds most people have about the homeless.
“I think it is really unfair to treat homeless people unfairly because they see them as a general group of homeless and not individuals,” she said.
She started the project in September last year and interviewed homeless on the streets of Port Coquitlam, her home town, and at the Salvation Army Ridge Meadows Ministries.
“I actually held up a sign for them to approach me because I didn’t want to be rude to them,” said Liu.
“It said what I’m doing and why I wanted to do this and it also said that if they felt uncomfortable at any time they could just leave if they want,” she said.
Liu also spent three to four hours at the Ridge Meadows Salvation Army Ministries interviewing others.
Liu found that once she explained that she wanted to spread awareness about their situation, most were really happy to tell their story.
She started each 45-minute interview with questions about the person’s childhood.
”I wanted to show people that they were all the same basically when they were children,” said Liu.
Then she asked them what led them onto the road of homelessness.
“Usually they would tell their story from there,” Liu said, adding that she kept the identities of all the people in the book anonymous.
Liu found that drugs and alcohol usually played a role in why each person she interviewed became homeless, and mental illness.
”I didn’t know that before. And I didn’t know how much transitional housing helped them and also how hurt they all were about how people judged them on the streets,” she said.
Liu’s self-published book is six inches by nine inches and 54 pages. She provided the art for the book herself.
“I took the pictures. For the stories I used symbolic pictures to represent their lives because they didn’t want to show their face and then I also pictures to illustrate the difference between their life and our lives,” she explained.
“For example the professional engineer I interviewed he said a really big turning point in his life was when he tried to commit suicide off a bridge. Two nurses saved him and sent him to the hospital. So I took a picture of a bridge,” continued Liu adding that she juxtaposed photos of a fireplace, Christmas tree, and nutritious meals with photographs of bushes, a stairwell and park bench, where she knows some of the people she interviewed live.
The book is available at the Meadowridge school library.
This summer Liu is planning to expand on the book by interviewing more people. But for now she is hoping that she can create an understanding that every homeless person is an individual.
“If you see a homeless person on the street you don’t necessarily have to give them money. You can give them a smile and make their day.”