At the beginning of the homelessness epidemic in the 1980s, Josephine Ensign was a young, white, Southern, Christian wife, mother, and nurse running a new medical clinic for the homeless in the heart of the South. Through her work and intense relationships with patients and co-workers, her worldview was shattered, and after losing her job, family, and house, she became homeless herself. She reconstituted her life with altered views on homelessness—and on the health care system. In Catching Homelessness, Ensign reflects on how this work has changed her and how her work has changed through the experience of being homeless—providing a piercing look at the homelessness industry, nursing, and our country’s health care safety net.
Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net was published August 9, 2016 by She Writes Press. It was chosen to be the University of Washington Health Sciences Common Book for academic year 2016/2017. Catching Homelessness was named the American Journal of Nursing 2017 Book of the Year for creative works.
For an excellent list of resources and a set of “questions to consider as you read” (“It’s time to read like you give a damn!”) Catching Homelessness, see this outreach packet by the UW Health Sciences Common Book group: 2016-2017 Outreach Packet.
Advance praise for Catching Homelessness:
“Catching Homelessness is a carefully researched documentary of poverty and health care woven together with an intensely personal and suspenseful memoir of a professional journey. Ensign is a compelling storyteller because she sees people so clearly; her characters include those who are homeless and sick, those who run health-care services, and not least herself. I wish every health-care professional would read this book at the start of their training, again at the start of clinical practice, and a third time after a decade of work. Few books do so much to humanize health care and to exemplify reflective clinical practice.”~ Arthur W. Frank, Ph.D., author of At the Will of the Body and The Wounded Storyteller
“A provocative book. Viewed through the lens of her own experience of homelessness, Josephine Ensign challenges us to view the homeless as real, complex people rather than social issues, or, worse, problems. Her committed vision as a clinician and author makes this a powerful narrative of one of the pressing social issues of our time.” ~Theresa Brown, New York Times Bestselling author of The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives
“The ability to share and understand another’s experience and feelings in a profound way is the basis of empathy. I have often wondered over the past 44 years as a nurse where this ability comes from. We expect nurses to practice in an empathic way and we believe we can educate nurses to express empathy as a critical aspect of therapeutic communication. But we don’t know precisely why some successfully feel another’s experience and some do not. We think it may have something to do with creativity. However, we do know it when we see it. In reading Catching Homelessness the act of empathy was evident on every page. Dr. Ensign crafts a narrative that expresses her own empathy for those she cares for and invokes the same level of understanding and awareness for her own struggles with uncertainly. One cannot read this lovely book without feeling deeply the sorrow and desperation that accompanies life on the edge.”~ Bobbie Berkowitz, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN, Dean and Professor, Columbia University School of Nursing.
“Homelessness, says Josephine Ensign, in Catching Homelessness, is ‘exhausting and soul-sucking.’ Ensign’s book is a powerful and personal story of providing nursing care for the homeless in Richmond, Virginia, and of experiencing homelessness herself. When her life and values no longer fit the expectations for a good white, southern, Christian wife and mother, Ensign loses her home in every respect. Homelessness is both very real and very near: it is a metaphor for ills that could befall any of us. In this era of foreclosures and income inequality, Catching Homelessness is a risk we share. Ensign never preaches but draws the reader into the world of people pushed to the margins, and to those few, like Ensign herself, who feel drawn to our common humanity.” ~Marsha Hurst, Ph.D., Lecturer, MS in Narrative Medicine, Columbia University, New York
Catching Homelessness book trailer linked here.
Catching Homelessness at Camp Hanover video/interview from 10-8-16 linked here.
“Homeless Professor” digital storytelling video with excerpt/adaptation from Catching Homelessness is linked here.
“Catching Homelessness” interview on Virginia This Morning/ WTVR CBS, Richmond, Virginia, October 11, 2016.
Essays based on chapters of the book have appeared in the following:
- Ensign, J. (May 2016). “Greyhound Therapy” in the Front Porch Journal, Issue 32.
- Ensign, J. (April 2011). Reprint/excerpt of Gone South in The Daily Palette,University of Iowa.
- Ensign, J. (April 2013) “Next of Kin” essay in the anthology I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse,edited by Lee Gutkind, In Truth Press.