Deepening Literary Lives: Homeless Writers Share Their Stories
Every Monday morning around 9 a.m., Denver VOICE vendors visit the nonprofit’s Capitol Hill office to collect some of the 8,000 copies of the street paper that move across the city each month.
From there, they disperse to posts around downtown to sell one paper at a time — in the cold, in the heat, year round. For Denver VOICE‘s 50 vendors, who either are experiencing homelessness or are transitioning out of it, selling papers is a job, and a tough one for sure, but a lifeline.
For some, it’s a creative outlet, too.
“I’ve always wanted to write since I learned how to read at 18,” says Brian Augustine, a Denver VOICE vendor. “When I became homeless, I started connecting with who I was, and leading with my heart instead of with my mind. Now, I write poetry, stories, things that happen in my life. It’s greatly improved my self-esteem.
“One day I was walking down the 16th Street Mall and a poem popped into my head,” Augustine continues. “I sat down and wrote it right there. It took me 20 minutes. When I turned it in, they said it was perfect. They published it word for word.”
When Augustine has an idea for a piece, he meets with Denver VOICE editor (and Confluence contributor) Sarah Harvey. Each week, Harvey works with vendors who feel the call to write. Some of their essays, short stories and poems will eventually appear among the paper’s news, photo spreads, and calendar listings. In every issue of Denver VOICE, vendors’ creative writing is published alongside that of Harvey’s stable of professional journalists and photographers.
“There’s a lot of back-and-forth workshopping, because everyone needs an editor,” Harvey says. “There are things they might not think of, details that it might not occur to them to add in their first draft. I know they have it in them, and I feel I’d be doing them a disservice not to give them the same amount of editorial help I might offer to any other writer.”
The themes can be raw, the language less polished, but there’s a power in these writings that comes from lived experiences and points of view. Storytelling, from the perspective of those who have experienced the hard reality of homelessness, is a huge part of what Denver VOICE exists to do, Harvey says.
“Part of our mission is to break down stereotypes concern homelessness and poverty,” she says. “That happens when a conversation is started between a vendor and a customer. It’s another way for them to connect with their community again. By pressing them to share details with their writing — like what it’s like to spend the night in an emergency men’s shelter, for example — it gives people more insight into a side of humanity that they probably know nothing about.”
“When we write, it helps people see who we are, what we do,” says Augustine. “It’s amazing to me how many people, how many attitudes I’ve changed by doing what I do, by being at the same spot, every Monday. And then when they find out I can write? I get amazing feedback from my customers. They put my writing up on Facebook, in their offices. I give autographs. I have one guy who won’t buy an issue unless I’m in it.”
A new idea
In October, Denver VOICE vendors had the opportunity to deepen their literary lives, and connect to others who share the writing impulse, during Write Denver, a new program from Lighthouse Writers Workshop. A group of vendors joined other writers from the Lighthouse community on a guided visit to three locations in east Capitol Hill. At each stop, they followed prompts that encouraged them to reflect in writing on change, place and identity.
“I have to say it was invigorating. It was much more than what I expected, as far as writing goes,” says Randy Keller, a Denver VOICE vendor who joined the Write Denver walking tour. “What I ended up writing was prose; some of it was personal. There was one that was set in a garden, and the garden changed through time. Of course, an individual changes through time. That got me writing and I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote — about seven pages in all.”
Writings from the October walk-and-write, from both vendors and Lighthouse writers, will appear in Denver VOICE‘s February 2016 issue.
“I love the idea of the vendors who participated in the Write Denver collaboration selling copies of Denver VOICE, which will include words of the writers who walked with them in October,” says Dan Manzanares, who leads the Write Denver program for Lighthouse. “The vendors’ words will stand shoulder to shoulder with those of Lighthouse and community members. We walked and wrote together, and now will be published together.”
Write Denver is the second collaboration between Denver VOICE and Lighthouse, a nonprofit literary center and writing community that offers classes, workshops and literary events at its home in East Capitol Hill, as well as in public schools and other venues across the Front Range. In 2012, the two organizations paired homeless vendors with Lighthouse students in a workshop that explored themes of place. Next month, Lighthouse expands its outreach with a new fellowship at Fort Lyons, an intensive residential program for men and women who have experienced homelessness. Writing and storytelling will offered alongside job-skills training, educational and recovery programs.
“I think those of us who are lucky enough to have positive and full educational experiences have a responsibility to create opportunities for underserved populations,” says Anthony D’Aries, one of three professional writers who will spend about a month living, working and writing among Fort Lyons residents as part of the Lighthouse fellowship; D’Aries has taught creative writing in correctional facilities and headed the Freedom to Write Program in New England, which offers workshops to underserved writers.
“When a population is marginalized, like prisoners or the homeless, their voices are silenced,” Says D’Aries. “Writing and literature can create opportunities for them to express themselves, to combat stereotypes by sharing their stories. Whether they’re writing fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, they are sharing their observations, their perspective. Their voices are being heard.”
A growing movement
Denver VOICE and Lighthouse are joined by other nonprofit service and arts organizations working to capture to enable creative expression among people who have experienced homelessness in metro Denver. Urban Peak and The Gathering Place offer writing programs to high-risk youth and women and families, respectively. Wonderbound regularly opens its rehearsal space — located just blocks from the city’s largest shelter as well as an ever-growing street encampment on Park Avenue — to all. And in 2000, RedLine opened Reach Studio, which invites struggling and underserved creatives into a community of artmakers. RedLine expanded its outreach to include ArtCorps mentoring, a program for homeless youth in Five Points.
“The essence of our program is really about giving someone who really wants to be a professional artist a chance where, really, it wouldn’t have existed before,” says Robin Gallittle, RedLine’s director of education. “It’s a space where they can be creative, find a community and find support, and, to the person for whom this program is the right fit, that can help them lead a more prosperous life. And the larger art community gets to benefit from different perspectives. If you don’t have those — racially, economically, generationally — you’re just catering to the same 10 percent of the population that most art exists to serve.”
In the Denver VOICE office, Harvey and her vendor writers are getting ready for the paper’s December issue, which will include reflections on the holiday season. Brian Augustine is excited to see his favorite piece, a personal update of “The Night Before Christmas,” reprinted; it will also go out across an editorial wire that serves many of the 115 street papers worldwide.
“I’m no Hemingway, but I’m decent,” he says. “My words have made women cry, made women hug me, and I think that’s pretty good for any writer.”
Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
This story is part of a series on the impact of arts and the creative community in Denver. This partnership with Confluence Denver and Creative Exchange is underwritten by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation. It originally appeared in Confluence here.