From family literacy to technology education, the Santa Monica Public Library has always sought to provide programs that could help local residents tackle any of the challenges that life throws at them.
Officials say as long as library patrons adhere to the code of conduct, everyone is welcome to find a place to read, relax and learn in any of the city’s five branches. But residents who identify as homeless oftentimes need more, according to Marc Morgenstern, former chair of the Santa Monica Library Board, and thanks to the longtime Santa Monica resident, they’re getting it at the Write Place.
“As the past chair of the Santa Monica Library Board, I knew how our libraries offered a safe environment, dedicated social workers, and mental health and other referrals to those experiencing homelessness. As a volunteer teacher at UCLA’s Word Commandos — a writing workshop for veterans suffering from PTSD at the West LA VA — I saw firsthand how creative writing can help homeless individuals find their voice and articulate their feelings in a therapeutic way,” Morgenstern said in a recent Q&A. Those two experiences met to become the inspiration for Write Place, a writing workshop held for people experiencing homelessness.
Library administrators were immediately receptive to starting a pilot program when the idea was first introduced, according to Morgenstern. And after witnessing how successful the program was, Morgenstern now hopes to hold a public reading at the library in the Spring that will allow participants to share their Write Place work with the world.
“Despite the challenges homeless individuals face on the streets, my initial goal was to get our participants writing in whatever format they preferred — song lyrics, play, poem, memoir, or fiction,” Morgenstern said. “In our first sessions, we focused on creating a trusting atmosphere where everyone could feel free to share their work for feedback. The writing soon started to flow from their composition books, inspired in part by readings and discussions of short stories by writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Alice Walker and Tobias Wolff.”
During his time with workshop participants, Morgenstern said he learned how kind and supportive people can be for each other.
“They consistently give constructive and thoughtful feedback on each other’s writing, such as how to improve dialogue or refine the rhythm of a song lyric. But beyond the writing, they often share food and clothing, as well as advice on how to stay safe and warm on the streets,” Morgenstern said. “I’ve also learned that these writers don’t solely define themselves by their homelessness,” and they have many things they wish to express through their writing.
Morgenstern added he now knows that people fall into homelessness for all kinds of reasons, ranging from health problems to family issues to economic distress.
“No one wants to be homeless but the line between sleeping on the street or under a roof is a very thin one,” he said, stating he’s also come to understand how important libraries are since they often serve as a vital refuge for those who are in need.
“It’s so easy for the homeless to feel invisible in a city full of people in a hurry,” Morgenstern said, but he encourages everybody to look those on the streets in the eye and say good morning because small, humane gestures mean far more than one may ever know.