Damilla, a One Step Away vendor

Billy Penn is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow at @brokeinphilly.

At last count, there were more than 1,000 people experiencing homelessness on Philly’s streets. It’s rare for most of us to find a few spare minutes to chat with any single one.

If we did, there’d likely be some insights to glean: what it’s like to live on the street, how people got there, how they’re hoping to get out.

A new podcast called “Heard” hopes to bridge the gap.

Produced by One Step Away, the street magazine written and distributed by people experiencing homelessness, Heard lets listeners dive into the details of individuals’ personal stories. The goal is to humanize the city’s street population — and highlight how OSA can help.

In one episode, a woman named Maria tells how she wound up homeless in West Philly. She chronicles her eviction, her hospitalization due to an illness, and subsequent confusion with the shelter system. She concludes by explaining that her work with OSA eventually led her to stable housing.

“When I looked in the mirror, that was the first time I saw myself after I came out of the hospital,” Maria says during the pod. “I just looked and I said, ‘oh god, you’re going to die.’ I felt like that was it for me.”

Four episodes have aired so far, Maria’s and two featuring OSA vendors who go by Neil, Skip and Jerry (podcast subjects are identified by first name only). There are five more in the pipeline, set to be released each Monday morning through July.

For OSA director Emily Taylor, the podcast is a vehicle to tell more in-depth stories, those that can’t fit in the print magazine.

“In the digital world, with so much multimedia, we’re looking at other ways to engage people and get the word out,” Taylor said. “I think it complements what we’re doing with the magazine and our advocacy work, trying to get our vendors’ voices heard.”

The sound of loneliness

Bella Vista resident and Venture for America fellow Dylan Yuska moonlights as the podcast’s host. After becoming friendly with an OSA vendor who sells the magazines outside his Center City office building, Yuska decided to volunteer. He started recording the program in February in the basement of the United Methodist Church, just north of City Hall.

The audio quality’s not perfect — at times you catch a faint car horn honking from Broad Street — but it’s not meant to be. Instead, it’s an honest exploration of Philly’s homelessness problem.

“It’s pretty easy to kind of look the other way on the street when someone’s looking for money,” Yuska said. “A lot is lost in that interaction. It can be kind of dehumanizing.”

The takeaways are powerful. The resounding experience associated with homelessness, the one that guests bring up again and again, is loneliness.

“It’s people turning away from you, it’s definitely having the door slammed in your face,” Maria said. “For me it means being alone, because there’s no one there to really help you when you need it the most.”

The dream, Yuska said, is to connect two very different worlds that coexist in Philadelphia: the one lived in by middle- and upper-class residents, and the one lived in by those experiencing poverty and homelessness. With understanding, he hopes there might be more meaningful change.

Meantime, he’s working now to renew the show for a second season. Yuska’s hoping to rake in some more loyal listeners to make it worth the effort, and maybe even a sponsorship or two to benefit the larger OSA organization.

“We’re just giving a chance, a platform for people to approach these stories with understanding,” Yuska said. “And also just remember that everyone has their struggle and their story.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...