L.J. Sellers

sellers ljHomeless twins inspire a story and a charity

On the streets of Eugene, Oregon, walk two brothers—tall, dark, and bone thin—identical homeless twins, pushing their carts, overflowing with empty cans and meager personal belongings. One walks with a limp, but he’s still out there every day with his brother, often until dark, picking up cans and bottles to recycle for cash. For them, it’s a job that buys food and toiletries, but at the end of their long work day, they have no place to call home.

They’ve been in my neighborhood for years, and I wanted to know their story. But there are 1,700 other homeless people in my hometown, and they all have stories. In 2013, when my novels found a bigger readership and my fortune changed for the better, I decided to get involved in the homeless issue and make a small difference if I could. I also realized that rather than discovering the twins’ real background, it was more important to write their story—a fictionalized account of how vulnerable homeless people are to crime and how unprotected they are by the justice and social systems. In fact, the homeless are often victimized by the courts and law enforcement personnel.

But for every officer who is quick to land a blow because a vagrant doesn’t move quickly enough, there are others in uniform who collect blankets and warm clothes for the homeless every winter and pass them out at the first sign of frost. Sometimes those impulses exist within the same law enforcement officer. I wanted to show those dichotomies in my story as well. So Wrongful Death, the tenth book in the Detective Jackson series, features a benevolent police officer who is killed—seemingly at the hands of a homeless man he was trying to help. In the story, the homeless community rallies to defend the street twin, and Jackson’s investigation is sidelined by protests and riots that threaten to get out of control.

The issues in Wrongful Death reflect the reality of street life in Eugene. Although the city has opened camps and established warming centers for cold nights, it’s never enough. Some people are chronically homeless because of mental illness or addiction issues. Others are temporarily homeless because of a financial setback. Those people are the easiest to help.

So as I plotted this story, I founded Housing Help, a charity dedicated to keeping families from becoming homeless. Its mission is simple: When a family faces eviction because of a short-term financial situation, Housing Help pays the rent to keep them in their home, sparing the children the emotional and educational setbacks that go along with displacement.

sellers wrongfuldeath

Research shows that most minimum-wage employees are one check away from homelessness. The most common reason for becoming homeless? Car trouble. A family spends the money to fix the car so the provider can get to work and keep their job, then they can’t pay the rent. Research also shows that keeping people in their homes—by paying a month’s rent or getting the car fixed—is much more cost effective than trying to help a family after they’re on the street.

So that’s what Housing Help does. It connects with families in need and helps them through a temporary financial crisis so they can keep their housing. Last year, Housing Help assisted six families, and we hope to do much more this year. To make that happen, I’ve dedicated a portion of the income from Wrongful Death to the charity.

Social issues always play a part in my crime fiction, but this Jackson story hits home for me more than anything else I’ve written. I still don’t know the street twins’ real story, but by writing about the broader issue, I’ve come to understand and support homeless people in a way I never expected.