Veteran educator and religious columnist Knotts (The Principal’s Chair, 2015) collects stories drawn from her interactions with members of an urban homeless community in Texas.
These 33 short, poignant anecdotes are about various transients whom the author met on the city streets of Austin. They’re a diverse group, and she describes each person’s unique history and circumstances. Knotts became deeply familiar with the members of this community in 2003, after she participated in a 72-hour, total-immersion “Street Retreat”—an experience spearheaded by a local food-truck homeless-outreach group called Mobile Loaves & Fishes. The author was initially unaware of the squalid conditions, hunger, and desperation that people living on the streets experienced, but her eyes were opened after she spent three days and nights without food or shelter herself. She was immediately inspired to learn more about Austin’s homeless people and to work toward potential solutions for their enduring plight. Knotts began regularly contributing her time, distributing donated food to homeless encampments, and in 2008, she began chronicling her encounters in a recurring column that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman newspaper. Those stories, along with accompanying photographs, comprise most of this collection, beginning with Knotts’ early recollection of defusing an encounter with a combative homeless man during a meal-distribution event. Other stories describe a festive holiday meal, prepared with the recipients of the dinner in attendance; a hopeful, churchgoing dumpster diver; a struggling Rod Stewart look-alike; and a heavily tattooed, recently released ex-convict who committed, and then corrected, a hurtful deed.
The most moving profile in this book is found near its conclusion, as Knotts tenderly describes how she befriended Laura Tanier, a transgender Native American homeless woman who later perished from injuries sustained in a hit-and-run accident. Tanier’s colorful artwork graces the cover of this book; to the author, her late friend represents how we are all “colorfully unique—connected to each other in startling ways.” Knotts also effectively shares many other lessons that she’s learned from her interactions with the Austin homeless community. She consistently offers vivid details and a humane, loving tone throughout these profiles and stories, which illuminate the stark reality of what she calls “alley life.” Knotts hopes that her epiphanies will help to change general perceptions about homeless populations everywhere—a demographic that is often prejudged and unfairly denigrated. The author’s Christian beliefs definitely play a part in her philanthropic efforts, and most of the stories in this collection offer an overarching, faith-based message with spiritual undertones. Despite their brevity, each of these lyrical sketches will provide readers with a powerful message of social change—that there’s a dire, worldwide need for more acceptance, brotherly love, and charitable compassion in daily life. In this informative book, Knotts backs up her firm belief that “each small step matters and that we can all play a part in making our world a better place.”
An intense and immensely humanitarian glimpse at a marginalized population that shows how a little inspiration and understanding can go a long way.