Joseph “J.W.” Harris leads a cooking class at his apartment in The Studios, a complex aimed at people experiencing homelessness. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)
Joseph “J.W.” Harris leads a cooking class at his apartment in The Studios, a complex aimed at people experiencing homelessness. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

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It started with a recipe he concocted on his own — Southern-style barbecue chicken spaghetti.

But pretty soon, Joseph “J.W.” Harris was spreading the cooking gospel to his neighbors and friends at The Studios, a permanent-housing apartment complex for people experiencing homelessness. In April, he led his first cooking class at the complex on North Topeka Avenue. 

This spring, he also got hired as a cook at The Inn, a 24-hour homeless shelter. HumanKind Ministries operates The Studios and The Inn.

For Harris, cooking has been a major motivation as he’s transitioned out of homelessness. Having accomplished these goals, his next step is buying a car.  

“Soon as my money starts coming in, I’m going to start putting back for a vehicle,” Harris said. “You have to set goals.”

Harris moved into The Studios in October from The Inn using an emergency housing voucher. The Wichita Beacon featured Harris in a March story about the city’s success with the vouchers. We caught up with him recently to discuss his experiences with homelessness and what he says can be done in the city to help others without permanent housing. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

People talk a lot about homelessness in the news or in politics, but there’s less we hear from people who have experienced it. What was your first-ever experience with homelessness? 

I’ve dealt with homelessness off and on all my life. And it sucks. People treat you differently. And, you can’t get things done. If you’re looking for work and you tell them you’re staying in the mission or The Inn, they kind of look at you. Like, “OK, we’re going to hire you,” but they still give you that look — are you going to be working, or are you going to do your drinking and drugging? You know what I mean? 

A lot of times when people talk about homelessness, they talk about substance abuse and mental health and how it can all overlap. 

Some of it does. I noticed when I was homeless, some of them use that as an excuse to do it. Me, I quit drinking in the summer of 2000.  

I’m diagnosed with bipolar, major depression and anxiety, all rolled up into one. I got into (the county mental health authority) COMCARE when I got here, after I got here in 2012. And I got to talking with them. I got me a PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3, so I play games. I put my cars together. And plus working helps, too. Because you’re concentrating on your job instead of what’s happened to you and what’s going on. But sometimes when you’re working it gets overwhelming because you get somebody who wants to fuss and argue about this. So it does get stressful a little bit.

You told me a lot of people are tired of being homeless. What do you think people are most tired of?

When you’re sitting there, you’re waving at somebody, you got a backpack on and you got a bag here and a bag here, they will give you a look that you know you’re nothing. 

They don’t need that. They get that every day. Don’t treat them different. They’re human just like me and you are. And they get treated like that, every day, like they don’t matter. But you got some of them out there that really, really is trying to better themselves. And they want to better themselves. You just gotta dig deep to stay away from what put you homeless the first time.

It’s interesting that you usually go to the social part, like how people treat you. Is that the worst part?

Well, some of it is. But also it takes a toll on you too. Because you’re just sitting there talking to the people you met in the homeless shelter and (you) get to talking about how you want a roof, how you want to get a vehicle, how you want to watch TV or sleep in your own bed or sit in your own La-Z-Boy chair or own your own couch. Take a shower whenever you wake up and stuff like that. Instead of having to sign a shower sheet. Or have your own soap and stuff instead of having to ask for a razor, and having your own toilet paper and stuff like that. Yeah, it does get stressful not having those things as a homeless (person). 

Not having any money in your pocket. That’s really stressful on you. It really is.

A lot of people in charge of politics talk a lot about how to solve homelessness, or what needs to happen. What do you think needs to happen? What are the biggest challenges?

I really don’t get into politics. I really don’t. I just let it go with the flow. But if they really want to help the homeless, get some more good programs out there. Right now, you got shelters for men. And you ain’t got hardly any shelters for women at all. You got more women sleeping out here on the street and stuff. They need to get a women’s shelter like the (Union Rescue) Mission. They really need one here. When I was homeless, I talked about that, I said, “Why ain’t there a women’s shelter?” They go, “I don’t know.” They couldn’t tell me. 

And I also think sometimes, too, I say I wish the mayor or one of these city people that sit in an office would come down here and see and talk to one of us.  

Editor’s Note: According to previous reporting by The Wichita Beacon, the Salvation Army offers a women’s homeless shelter in Wichita. 

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Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership...