The promise of food on Wednesday afternoons brought Patricialynn Veal and her fiancé, who were both experiencing homelessness, to the Arvada Library for the first Hard Times Writing Workshops last January.
But the people she met and the self-empowerment she felt while writing that kept her coming back.
“Writing sounds daunting, but seriously, it helps you get it out,” Veal said.
Hard Times Writing Workshop is presented by Lighthouse Writers Workshop in partnership with the Jefferson County Library. The weekly workshop welcomes people experiencing hard times who want to express themselves through writing. The Arvada program mimics a program started four years ago at the central branch of the Denver Public Library.
“Hard Times is designed to help people overcome hard times — homelessness, addiction, trauma, loss,” said Simone Groene-Nieto, coordinator of diversity and inclusion for Jeffco Library.
Groene-Nieto was also involved in implementing the original program in Denver and worked closely with the homeless community in that area.
“A lot of times organizations just focus of meeting basic needs, food, water, shelter — but we felt it was really important to acknowledge other needs like creativity, entertainment and social connection,” Groene-Nieto said. “Things that make life worth living. I just think it’s so important to acknowledge the needs of the human spirit — that’s what we’re trying to feed.”
The workshop started at the Arvada Library Jan. 31, 2018 with 12 participants. Now, the group is up to over 20.
“This group is extremely supportive of each others writing and there are phenomenal writers in here,” said Joy Sawyer, who facilitates the group in Arvada. “It’s not just self-expression, they’re working on craft and working on telling their stories in thoughtful ways.”
One of the reasons the Arvada branch was chosen as the first Jeffco library to host the program is because of the influx of people experiencing homelessness in the area.
Each meeting at the Arvada Library follows a similar format. The group reads a piece of prose and talks about it for the first 30 minutes. Then the facilitator gives them a writing prompt and participants write for 30 minutes. Then come back as a group and share their work — either from the prompt or something else they’ve been working on.
No one ever has to share their writing, but everyone is given the chance.
At the Jan. 9 meeting the group came to life with poems full of emotions about looking into the new year and leaving behind toxic relationships and activities; about depression, anger and overcoming past trauma; autobiographical memory pieces about Mother’s Days past and miscarriages; and non-fiction pieces about remembering the homeless who died in the past year.
“I think the sharing with everybody for me has been amazing,” said Pat Barriga, 73, who has been experiencing a hard time since her husband died. “Not only because I hear the different styles from everybody and the stories from everybody, but to know that I’m not the only one going through a difficult time. There are people like me and even worse who are having hard times — it has taught me a lot.”
The group is filled with people experiencing a variety of hard times, not just homelessness. The Arvada group ranges in age from 18 to 80 and includes veterans; people struggling with addiction; survivors of violence and sexual abuse; and people dealing with loss of love ones, aging and mental health disorders.
“It’s such a strange combination and that’s what makes this really work,” Veal said. “We can see across everybody’s patterns and we can remember what it’s like.”
For some, the group has restored a lost love of writing. For others, it has helped them express themselves, think outside the box, gain confidence and change their lives.
Getting back into the writing put priorities in order, for Veal. She thought, “If I can write, I can interview for a job. If I get a job, I can do a job.”
It also helped her see what other issues she had to work on.
“Not just the homelessness,” Veal said. “The homelessness is the reason we came. But the other hard times we were going through — post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, not being able to find a job, being older and not what the job market is looking for — this group had a way of swinging that negative into something positive.”
Now, almost one year after the group started, Veal credits Hard Times with getting her through homelessness, getting her motivated and upbeat enough to get a job and helping her to not be homeless anymore.
“Now, this group keeps me from losing my sanity, moving forward and leaving the black behind,” Veal said. “As far as the groups concerned, this is life-saving for anyone dealing with a hard time.”