Sofa Stories Gives Homeless Youth a Chance to Share Their Experiences

One Detroit playwright has found a unique way to help young homeless people share their stories.
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Andrew Morton chose the sofa, where many homeless youths find themselves sleeping, as the backdrop for them to tell their stories. // Photograph by Jacob Lewkow.

Sitting on a sofa in the middle of a brick sidewalk in Detroit, a young man looks into a camera and says he’s lucky.

“I have a roof over my head and a place to sleep,” he continues. “Right here on this couch, actually.”

He goes on to tell the story of how he came to stay at his friend Ash’s house. He recalls worrying that he’d be a burden or people would think he was annoying, and how one housemate, indeed, (the cat) is not pleased with him being there, crashing on their couch. But for the young man, that couch is, for now, all he has. Like many other youths in urban areas, he found himself homeless until someone was willing to take him in.

His story is, technically speaking, not true — and yet it is. Through a Detroit-born organization called Sofa Stories, youths who have experienced homelessness have an opportunity to tell their stories in their own way. But laying bare their stories themselves can often be a frightening prospect. Instead, Sofa Stories partners them with local writers who help them create scripts for their own monologues, drawing inspiration from their own lives and telling stories that illuminate the struggle of homelessness, much like a novelist basing a book on real-life experiences.

The stories they share are sometimes harrowing — there are tales of abuse, death, and suicide — the kinds of stories it’s hard to believe someone made up rather than, under the veil of fiction, was able to open up about.

Sofa Stories is the brainchild of Andrew Morton, an England-born playwright who calls Detroit his home (his family moved to the Flint area when he was young; he moved to Detroit in 2017). Morton’s work usually incorporates some type of social justice element. In Flint, he wrote and directed verbatim theater projects — plays based on interviews with local residents about such issues as arson and emergency financial managers taking over the city.

In Detroit, he wanted to take on a different issue. “We might see homelessness, or what we perceive to be homelessness, in a city, but young [homeless] people are often hiding in plain sight, … sleeping at a friend’s house because they don’t feel safe in their family home, shared sleeping in abandoned housing or a shelter, living in their car,” he says with a lingering British accent.

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, more than 34,000 students in Michigan public schools were homeless during the 2018-19 school year, with about 4,800 of them being “unaccompanied” — that is, without a parent or guardian to look after them.

The sofa, he felt, was a strong image to base the project around. “Sofa surfing, couch surfing, is something a lot of young people will do to navigate [homelessness],” he says.

He also liked the idea of the performances being outside, “something that would catch the passing public’s eye,” he says.

Photograph by Jacob Lewkow.

In 2019, he received a grant from the Knight Foundation and partnered with the Detroit Phoenix Center, an organization that helps young people experiencing homelessness and poverty.

The project started virtually, but in 2021 they held their first outdoor performances in various spots around Detroit — just an actor, a couch, and hopefully, an audience.
Morton considers that first summer of performances a success but found that performing live, outside, had its drawbacks.

“If it’s not too hot, it’s too windy,” he says. This dilemma led him to take Sofa Stories in a new direction: video.

With the Knight Foundation grant and his later designation as a Kresge fellow, Morton had the funds to form a “small, informal collective” of filmmakers and writers to work with youths in telling their stories through live performance and online at sofastoriesdetroit.com.

The funding also allowed them to give the students, for their work as actors, a small stipend — “one of the best ways to support young people in crisis,” Morton says.

The group takes a “meet you where you’re at” approach, working to help young people tell their stories in whatever way they’re comfortable with. “It could be a true story, or it could be a fictionalized version of a person’s experience,” Morton says.

For the next phase of the project, Morton says, he’s turning his focus to LGBTQ youth, who, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy, are 120 percent more likely to suffer homelessness — often due to nonacceptance at home.

In his monologue, the young man on the couch says he identifies as queer, grew up in foster care, and became homeless after his two roommates moved out unexpectedly, leaving him with bills he couldn’t pay. Meanwhile, the cafe he worked for went out of business.

“When you live the kind of life I have lived, it’s kind of hard just to remember that people can be nice,” he says. “Ash says it’s our responsibility as members of the queer community to look out for each other, and they’re right. A lot of us don’t have supportive families.”

In November, Morton was awarded a residency with Detroit Public Theatre, giving him a place to rehearse the next series of Sofa Stories and hold an indoor summer performance before taking the project back outside.

In time, Morton plans to turn his group into a formal organization that will continue to work with the Detroit Phoenix Center, running an after-school theater program. The name for the new organization, Every Soul, comes from a lyric in the song “New York Morning,” one of his favorites, by the British band Elbow: “For every soul, a pillow at a window, please.”


This story is from the January 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition