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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

‘Homeless Yoga’ And ‘The Art Of Panhandling’

From left, Pilgrim contributors David "Shaggy" Hurley and Kevin Walker, Pilgrim editor James Parker and Pilgrim contributor Margaret Miranda, holding a copy of the literary magazine. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

From left, Pilgrim contributors David “Shaggy” Hurley and Kevin Walker, Pilgrim editor James Parker and Pilgrim contributor Margaret Miranda, holding a copy of the literary magazine. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Thumbing through Wednesday’s Boston Globe, back in the Metro section, there’s a story about a man found dead Tuesday on a park bench in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood.

Police suspect he was homeless, and won’t be able to identify him for a few days.

His story may never be told. But the stories of other homeless people, written in their own words, are being told.

James Parker, a columnist with the Atlantic, last year began publishing “The Pilgrim” with help from Boston’s historic Cathedral Church of Saint Paul. Each issue contains stories, essays, poems, even comics, written by the homeless. It started when Parker began a writers’ group for the homeless at the church.

“As soon as these guys started writing, I became aware instantly that I had some amazing material,” Parker said.

“So being a wise guy, I say, ‘Yeah, I’m practicing homeless yoga, lady.’”
– Kevin Walker

The stories are stark and serious, ironic and funny.

Homeless Yoga

Kevin Walker, who’s been homeless for five years after getting laid off from his job, wrote about his experience trying to find a way to stay dry inside his sleeping bag.

His solution was morbidly simple: a body bag. He bought one, and it even came with a toe tag.

Walking down the street one day, with the body bag rolled up under his arm, a young woman driving a BMW pulled over and stopped Walker. She looked at the rolled up body bag and asked: “What kind of yoga do you do?”

“Oh my God, she thinks I’m practicing yoga,” Walker said. “So being a wise guy, I say, ‘Yeah, I’m practicing homeless yoga, lady.’ ”

In “The Pilgrim,” Walker’s story became a comic strip, thanks to artwork by Parker’s friend, Rick Pinchera. (See the full comic below)

In the last panel, Walker moves on, with the body bag rolled under his arm “… in anticipation of sleeping like the dead.”

That may sound cynical, but Walker says that’s his life.

“Because I sleep outside, and I count my victories by getting a good night’s sleep,” Walker said. “And I was looking forward to a body bag keeping the rain off me and helping me sleep.”

Writing As Therapy

Walker says writing about his experience is great therapy for him and something that he and other homeless people look forward to each week.

Margaret Miranda, another contributor to the magazine, agrees and says the magazine gives the homeless a chance to tell their own stories.

“So often, homeless people are seen as a mass, we’re not seen as individuals,” Miranda said. “And this is an opportunity to share our individual voices.”

In her poem, “Somewhere There is a Child,” Miranda writes about a small gesture of kindness that still stays with her.

It’s about a child who made her a bag lunch. Miranda writes that the child “wrote on it in blue-violet crayon ‘Have a GREAT day’ and the ‘GREAT’ is so big there is barely room for ‘day.’ ”

Miranda says she keeps the bag as a reminder of that kindness and the child. “Still have it. Will keep it all my life,” she said.

The Art of Panhandling

But some of the pieces are more dour.

David “Shaggy” Hurley, who lived on the streets for decades before finding housing, writes about his experience panhandling.

In the beginning, he would lie to people, saying he needed money for a bus, or was trying to get enough funds to go home for the holidays.

But eventually, he realized that the best approach was honesty.

“I had to change myself, and I got to meet some interesting people,” Hurley said.

Shelters Not Always A Welcome Refuge

“The social workers will bend over backwards to help you, they’ll kill you with kindness,” Walker said. “But the so-called guests, the homeless, will kill you period. If you like the shelters, fine, do them, by all means, but not me.”

Walker said one veterans’ shelter he tried was worse than boot camp, and he was tired of being treated like a criminal. So he opts to sleep on the streets.

“I’ve been sleeping in a sleeping bag outside now for five years. And why, because as someone else said, the days go by slow, but the years go by fast,” Walker said.

Walker says it’s hard to look for a job, when you’re trying to survive.

“I did not know I was going to be outside for five years. I get locked into this homelessness, because the resources, it takes all day to take a shower, it takes all day to eat, it takes all day to keep yourself clean. And you avoid the shelters, because that’s a good place to get hurt,” Walker said.

Christmas: A Severe Survival Day

The homeless get more attention during the holidays, and the contributors say that’s fine by them, because the winter can be a dangerous time of year.

“Homeless people die by the way, that’s what bothers me. They die ignominious deaths. They croak, they die on benches, they die on sidewalks, and they get ignored, they get walked by,” Walker said.

Christmas is an especially tough time of year, because many homeless don’t have any family members to turn to.

“I’ll probably do what I did last Christmas, which is sleep late. And then attend a religious service — attend church,” Walker said.

But the shelters will be overflowing on Christmas, and Walker says some homeless will find themselves struggling.

“It’s a severe survival day,” Walker said.

"Homeless Yoga" comic strip by Kevin Walker, with pictures by Rick Pincherr.


  • Kevin Walker, contributor to “The Pilgrim”
  • Margaret Miranda, contributor to “The Pilgrim”
  • David “Shaggy” Hurley, contributor to “The Pilgrim”
  • James Parker, Atlantic columnist and editor of “The Pilgrim”

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  • Mia

    This is a interesting way to help our Homeless.
    They find a voice and we get  our eyes opened to their everyday struggles.
    I help at the local shelter (that is very small and very safe) and these
    stories have given me new insights.
    Please writers and publisher continue to do this good, good thing.
    The poem by Ms. Mirdanda is simply wonderful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=804208559 Kerry Ard

    Shaggy is amazing

  • L.Dornak

    I think Margaret Miranda has an AMAZING radio voice. Perhaps someone listening to your program will recognize her and offer her a job.

  • jayhoward

    I fail to understand why the homeless shelters are not safe; why they tolerate any form of violence at all. What we need are old fashioned flop houses, buildings with many one room apartments made of cinderblock or hard cement with stainless steel, unbreakable toilet facilities. They could be rented  cheaply by the night or longer. Then the homeless would have a place to stay. A huge problem with shelters is that during the day the homeless hang out in large numbers outside the shelter bumming cigarettes or change. They smell bad and are scary. They absolutely destroy the property values of any area where they hang out. 

  • RevWik

    I tuned in at the end of this segment, unfortunately, but nearly had to pull off on the side of the road when I heard you introduce David “Shaggy” Hurley.  For three years I worked at that the Unitarian Universalist Association’s headquarters on Beacon Hill next to the State House. but I lived on Cape Cod.  The bus I took dropped me off at South Station, and I would walk the rest of the way to work.  Nearly every day I would encounter Shaggy outside the Dunkin Donuts, and I really looked forward to our meetings.  I didn’t usually carry money with me, but I would always stop and talk with him.  I was so happy when he told me that he’d finally gotten housing.

    I now live in Virginia, having moved here to pastor a church.  To be totally honest, one of the things I knew I would miss most about moving would be my encounters with Shaggy and a couple of other guys I would see every time I came into Boston.  I cannot say how glad I am to have heard his voice again and to know that he’s doing well.

  • Apphotographer

    I am actually a graduate student in a social work program, my undergrad is in fine art photography.  I started a project titled “Invisible Faces” which seeks to address the homeless epidemic by “Creating Art to End Homelessness.”  I have been sitting with homeless youth learning their life stories then documenting them with a series of portraits.  The portraits are being used to raise awareness and money for Youth On Fire to support their budget short falls.  

    The kickstarter project is found under the name “Invisible Faces” and can be found at 


    thank you –  

  • http://www.facebook.com/yoga.love.792 Yoga Love

    Great post! I think the consciousness of doing something for homeless people should be awaken among all the people.

    Nayeema Akter

  • jw6ksucf

    I was really turned off by the fact that Robin so apologetically asks why they are homeless, and allows them to not answer the question.  These people can write cohesive sentences, show up for an interview on time, speak well…why are they homeless?  This seems like another case of people being homeless by choice.  Especially Margaret.  I think she would rather live on the streets and write stories than do dishes at a restaurant.  There is no reason to believe it’s any more complicated than that.

    • RevWik

       Unless, of course, you took the time to get to know these people and people like like them.  As I noted, I got to know Shaggy and some of the other homeless people I encountered daily.  It’s a lot more complicated than that.

    • Just a citizen

      There are a lot of debilitating illnesses that don’t “show,” including physical illness, mental illness, addictions of various kinds. These can all bring a person down low and prevent them from obtaining housing. Even if they hold down a job (which can be hard for many), housing may still be out of their reach for one reason or another. I think Robin was kind to respect their privacy. So much of what they have is out in the open, I’m sure it’s difficult to keep anything private.

  • Savans2

    This program was amazing and stopped me in my tracks.  What beautiful people these “homeless” are.  Hearing their voices, their thoughts and feelings.  It was so moving.  If I only had half of the voice quality Miranda has, I would be fortunate.  All were so well spoken one would think they were professionals.  This programme made me think more about my pre conceived ideas of who the “homeless” are.  We are all human with our own special gifts.  Thank you NPR for sharing these wonderful people.  I will look more softly at those sleeping on the street and send them well wishes instead of being fearful.

  • Jonathan E Steen

    Ms. Miranda should be an Audiobook narrator. Her voice and reading was awesome. Just my two cents.

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