New group aims to help the homeless share their stories

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Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Alexander Andrews is the founder of Spread the Word 406, dedicated to humanizing the lives of homeless people in Billings.

Alexander Andrews wants to give homeless people in Billings the things they need, including food and clothing. He also wants to give them a voice.

That’s why he started Spread the Word 406, a group that will take supplies to homeless people on the street or wherever they congregate. At the same time, group members will be gathering stories and testimonials, giving the homeless a chance to speak for themselves.

Armed with cameras, voice recorders and notepads, the volunteers will collect stories, videos and photographs and post them on social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram.

Andrews said the people they reach out to will be asked how they became homeless, how it affects their lives, how hard it is to get out of homelessness and “what they want to see in the future to help them.”

The story-gatherers will be respectful, and only those who want their stories told will be asked to participate.

“We don’t want anyone to feel like they’re being used, like a token,” Andrews said.

Andrews held an organizational meeting at the Good Earth Market on Sunday, which drew seven people, and on Thursday afternoon he was planning to gather with volunteers behind the downtown Albertsons store to make their first attempt at outreach.

Your Last Best News correspondent left town before that meet-up, but Andrews said he was expecting 10 people or so to join him to deliver food to homeless people in the downtown area and to start laying the groundwork for collecting stories. Later in the day, they had already posted a couple of entries and one short video on their Facebook page, featuring people they met.

And as of Thursday evening, the Spread the Word 406 Facebook page already had nearly 70 followers, “so we’re hoping to translate that into some good numbers,” Andrews said.

Andrews developed empathy for homeless people by spending most of  his time downtown, working at the Albertsons store and living a block from there on the North Side.

That empathy was also developed during a short stint of homelessness that he went through three years ago. Andrews, who is transgender, was housing some younger transgender people when he began having seizures and some mental health problems.

As a result, he said, he lost his job and his house, and with winter coming on he wanted to be somewhere warmer.

“I walked into the bus station and San Francisco was the first place I saw,” he said. “And I had just enough money to get there.”

He was homeless for three or four months, he said, but San Francisco provided lots of services for homeless people, and “everybody I met was fantastic.”

When he felt stable enough, he returned to Billings, where some friends allowed him to sleep on a couch while he looked for work, which he soon found. Since then, he said, he has gone out of his way to engage with homeless people he encounters, to help them when he can but mostly just to listen to them.

He hopes that by sharing their stories with a larger audience, he can do his part to erase some of the stigma attached to being homeless.

“If people don’t think of the homeless as a problem, but of homelessness as the problem … that can change how people act,” he said.

Andrews said he’s inspired by what he’s heard of efforts in places like Salt Lake City and cities in Europe, which offer an array of services in a central spot, helping homeless people deal with mental illness and addiction, trying to find them shelter and easing them into employment.

In Montana, he said, he has contacts with fellow members of the Democratic Socialists of America who are interested in starting Spread the Word 406 chapters in other cities. A former co-worker of his is talking about trying something similar in Malta, he said.

Spread the Word 406 has also been invited to have a booth at a “Recovery Celebration” at South Park on Friday, Sept. 8., from 10 a.m. to0 3 p.m.

For Thursday night’s maiden outing, Andrews said volunteers would just be distributing food and water. On subsequent weekly outings they’ll also distribute clothing, particularly warm clothing as winter draws nearer. Group members will be asked to buy everything for now, Andrews said, but he hopes to register as a nonprofit so they can accept donations.

And they don’t want to confine their efforts to the downtown, he said.

“We want them (homeless people) to know they have a support system throughout the town — people who care for them,” he said. “Wherever they are, we’ll go to them.”

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