Humanizing Homelessness: An Interview with Lisa Hoelscher of Gathering Ground Theatre

Anna: Where was your Tales of Sleepless Nights monologue?

Lisa: Mine was on Congress Avenue, in front of Starbucks where they had the aggressive architecture. They had rows of metal balls there to keep people from sitting on the ledges. So I did my performance, and… it was… very healing for me. And I’m humbled by the audience’s reaction… It makes me cry… because, like…I didn’t know that there was a name for it, and it was called dehumanization. I was so blind to it in my own country that I didn’t know it was happening to me.

After they wouldn’t give me the water…it sounds so silly now…

Anna: No, not at all.

Lisa: Well, when they wouldn’t give me the water at the IHOP, I would walk down the street, and there’d be big bowls of water for dogs. And they’d make it fresh and cold all the time. So at that performance with a captive audience on Congress, I held them, and I even tried to make right at the end. I tried to make people kinda laugh. And nobody laughed. It was like a hushed quiet, like, “WTF.”

That’s when I knew that something seriously was wrong with that, even more than what I thought—that it was much deeper. After doing that performance, I started healing primarily, and I’m okay with it now, you know? I mean, it doesn’t… it just makes me cry because I was healed; it doesn’t make me cry because it happened to me. I really felt like there were people out there that cared!

And remember when we did that thing on the radio?

Anna: A Tale of Two Citizens. I’m still amazed by how we recorded our script over the phone and were able to present it with a panel and week of action, all during the heat of the pandemic.

Now the group is working on a memorial performance to honor people in the city who have died because of homelessness.

Lisa: Yeah. We showed how people get mistreated, how we’re kicking people when they’re down already, you know? And then with the landlord and people losing their housing right after they get it—all that is true. Bad stuff happens to people because they’re alone, because they’re broke, because of poverty. And poverty isn’t something for you to be judging people by.

Anna: Right, it’s not their fault. And we’ve faced so much loss over the past few years. You know, people near and dear to us as well.

Lisa: That was hard to lose Pat and James. It was really hard to lose James. Oh my gosh.

Anna: Of course. Pat had been collaborating with us since 2019 through Tenants Speak Up! Theater, and James was a founding member of Gathering Ground and one of your best friends. I feel like there’s never enough time to grieve. Though now the group is working on a memorial performance to honor people in the city who have died because of homelessness. What are your hopes for that performance?

Lisa: Oh, there are gonna be puppets! And we’re gonna have three banners, and they’re going to have all names of the people that have died and people’s stories. I just want to tell their stories so bad. And many of these deaths are because of Prop B.

Anna: Right. Prop B was a proposition in 2021 that reinstated camping bans, sitting and lying down in certain areas, panhandling at certain times—basically overturning the 2019 win we actually started off talking about.

Lisa: You remember when I did that drawing for the zine, with the city sweeping homelessness under the rug? Well, that’s what’s happened. My drawing said: “Prop B won, now death has begun.” Now they’ve swept them under the rug with the vote. And death has come.

Anna: I think another thing that’s special about Gathering Ground is how connected it is to other groups and organizing in the city, like DSA and Homes Not Handcuffs. It helps our theater target something concrete, like Prop B.

Lisa: I’m encouraged by that, too. Gathering Ground has educated me politically from the very beginning by telling me that things were happening to us that I had accepted, and showing me that things can change.

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