June 19, 2018

Stories from the Street

A homeless ’zine tells stories of life on the street and offers a steady source of income for some.
By Patrick Sullivan | Sept. 9, 2017

The brutal assault of several homeless people sleeping behind a church in downtown Traverse City last July proved to Peggy Byland that perhaps the people who live on the street need better P.R.

That summer, Speak Up, the small magazine, or ’zine, focused on and written by homeless individuals, that launched in Traverse City in 2014, had just stopped publication in northern Michigan. Byland, a retired elementary school English teacher, recognized that something needed to take its place.

“When we had that incident a year ago, with some of our people that were assaulted behind Central church — I think that was the catalyst for [understanding that] we have to let people know that we’re not dirt bags that people can kick or punch. We’re people. We have rights,” Byland said. “They want people to know that they’re human, and all humans need to be treated with respect and dignity and given the opportunity to be themselves.”

Byland, who is not homeless, and a group of people who were homeless, formed TC Street Voices. They published the first 100 percent local issue last fall. Next month, the publication will celebrate its first anniversary.

TC Street Voices’ editorial vision is to be more literary mag than newspaper, but it nonetheless reflects current events in the homeless community.

When Michael Conway was struck and killed by a driver on Division Street one night last October, his death shocked the homeless community. It also started a conversation about pedestrian safety in Traverse City and prompted someone to donate reflective vests, which were handed out at the Jubilee House, the Washington Street resource center operated by Grace Episcopal Church. The effort prompted a feature in the Street Voices February issue that included a series of photos of homeless individuals wearing the vests, showing solidarity with Conway, and symbolizing the importance of pedestrian safety.

This October, Byland said the first anniversary issue will focus on Safe Harbor, a wintertime homeless shelter that will open this November in its new permanent location on Wellington Street after years of fund-raising and political debate.

Though Safe Harbor has been controversial, Byland said the Street Voices writers don’t set out to write about controversy. If anything, the ’zine is meant to reflect what life is like on the street.

“We certainly have a voice that we want to be heard, but we work very hard not to offend people,” Byland said.

Byland said that, as editor, she doesn’t believe it’s her place to censor writers, but if she sees something that she thinks could be offensive, she talks to the writer and attempts to convince them to make a change. That came up recently when a writer submitted a piece that might have sounded like criticism of churchgoers who have a lot of money.

“I had an incident like that back in the spring. One of our writers submitted something and so I got back to him and I said, ‘You know, let’s look at this section right here,’” she said. “It was an attitude of having plenty — religious people are sometimes seen as people who have a lot but don’t want to give a lot. And so it was that kind of attitude.” 

Although common for decades in large metro areas, a homeless street newspaper didn’t come to Traverse City until Bill and Deb Shaw, who had started a street paper in the Philippines, helped launch one here. Their son, Matt, has published Speak Up in Charlotte since 2011; the Traverse City version was an extension of that paper.

Byland said there were two problems with Speak Up: Much of its content wasn’t local, and its publication schedule wasn’t reliable.

“There was a real gap between T.C. and Charlotte,” she said. “ … the vendors were struggling because they never had any new copy.”

When the Shaws were called out of town last summer, that spelled the end of Speak Up. The Shaws, who are missionaries, needed to go back to the Philippines for six months.

Byland, who had been recruited to run writers’ meetings for Speak Up, was concerned that the zine’s closure would leave a hole not only in the community but also in its vendors’ income. Even if it had published only sporadically for a couple of years, its vendors had come to depend on the income they earned from selling it.

Byland’s solution: Launch a new zine to replace it.

“We had nothing when we started. Not a penny. But we did have the connection with Speak Up with Matt in North Carolina. And so Matt … agreed to fund our first issue [of TC Street Voices], which gave us seed money,” Byland said. “Our first issue was sold out in two weeks. People were — they were hungry for a new issue. They were used to getting the ’zine and looked forward to it whenever it was published.”

Laurie Koelsch and Randy Parker lived together, homeless, for seven years before they found an apartment in December 2015. They started selling Speak Up from the beginning. They were also the ’zine’s first Traverse City-based writers — and today help publish Street Voices.

In issue 10, which was published in August, Koelsch wrote about being a street vendor and how much Street Voices means to her: “One gentleman asked me if I believed in the magazine. I told him that I whole-heartedly believed it. There is so much good that comes from the sales of this street paper. He then walked away thinking about what I had said and returned a few seconds later and purchased one to read.”

Parker writes in the same issue about the loss homelessness thrusts upon a person.

“When I lost the first storage unit, I lost photos of my dad, who died when I was eight years old, and photos of my mother, who died when I was in my ’20s,” Parcher wrote. “I could not tell you what either of them looks like, as the memories have faded over time just trying to get to tomorrow.”

Koelsch and Parcher live together in an apartment today, but they said it was a struggle to get there, because even after they qualified for subsidized housing, it seemed impossible to find an empty apartment around Traverse City owned by someone willing to accept federal housing vouchers.

When they were homeless, they lived in a van in the Traverse City Walmart parking lot or parked on state land when it was warm enough. They stayed overnight at Safe Harbor when it was cold.

They predict that the need for a paper like Street Voices is only going to grow because rising housing prices in the region are going to force more people onto the street.

“There’s not enough low-income housing to get people off the streets in Traverse City,” Koelsch said.

Just recently, people could move to Buckley or Copemish, for example, and find a $300 per month apartment, but that’s no longer the case, they said.

“Now those places cost $700 even there or in Copemish,” Parcher said. “It’s $700 out there for a dump. Some friends of ours are paying $700 for a dump. I thought it should have been condemned.”

Koelsch, who grew up in Flint and moved to Traverse City in 1970, and Parcher, who grew up in Falmouth and moved to the area around 1980, met and hit it off when they both worked for Manpower.

Parcher said one objective he has for his writing is to challenge stereotypes people hold about the homeless. He and Koelsch are examples that defy stereotype, he said.

“Homeless people often don’t live up to stereotypes,” he said. “We don’t drink. We don’t do drugs. We just ran into bad health and a lot of job choices were a bad choice because they left here. That’s actually how I became homeless every time. My job went away.”

When they started selling Speak Up in 2014, it was a good source of income.

They’d sell it downtown, at farmers markets and at churches. They’d set up at Front and Cass streets from 6pm until 9pm each Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. They’d stop selling at 9pm because that’s when the traffic on the sidewalk turns rowdier as more bar traffic fills the street.

Parcher said he felt like they mostly were treated well, but he also said he sometimes felt invisible.

“I actually remember one gal in particular. I’m standing there. I thought I had eye contact with her — I’m looking right in her eyes,” he said. “So I’m going, ‘The ’zine, you know, cheaper than a cup of coffee,’ and the gal jumped. She didn’t even see me until I spoke.”

Parcher’s health has deteriorated in the last couple years, and he can’t sell the paper like he used to. He’s had several major surgeries in the last year that have slowed him down.

“My legs are done. I tried to go out Friday night for Friday Night Live one night, but I just can’t do it like I used to,” he said. “We were doing really well at first, and then I had a lot of health issues that have really dragged that down.”

Byland, who became a minister when she moved to Traverse City from Fremont in 2008, started volunteering at Safe Harbor when she recognized how much they needed overnight volunteers who are female.

“I volunteered at Safe Harbor because I’ve always had a connection with alcoholism and alcoholics. This is part of my family history, and so there’s always been a sense of, what can I do? I can’t fix. I can’t change. But I can walk alongside these people,” Byland said.

One year she worked 11 overnight shifts, a heavy-duty workload for a volunteer. That got her very well acquainted with the homeless population, and she became manager at the Jubilee House.

Now that Street Voices is up and running and appears to be viable, Byland said the group applied for nonprofit status in August.

Each issue — typically 20 pages made up of five 8 ½-by-14-inch pieces of paper folded in half and stapled — costs $2. Vendors pay $.50 per issue, enabling them to earn at least $1.50 for each copy sold. Often, people pay well over $2 per issue.

Ad revenue covers losses from the cost of printing because the paper costs more than 50 cents per copy to print.

There are around a dozen vendors, but that fluctuates with the seasons. Byland said some vendors have done really well.

“Our vendors, they really depend on the income,” she said. “I am amazed at how dependent they really are.”

Ryan Hannon, street outreach coordinator for Goodwill Northern Michigan, said Street Voices is a good way for people to learn more about the plight of the homeless.

“It’s one snapshot of whoever is writing, their perspective of it. There’s no way for something like that to capture it all,” Hannon said. “It’s a peek into that person’s experience, which can be enlightening, but not everybody experiences homelessness the same way.”

Hannon agreed that selling the paper is good for some people, but it’s not for everyone. Not every person who becomes homeless wants to make that condition a part of their public identity.

“If you are a vendor, you’re out there, kind of selling yourself really, but you’re also showing the world, in real time, in interaction with them, that you are homeless or used to be. That’s a hard thing. Not everyone can do that or wants to do that or should do that,” Hannon said. “You know, homelessness, that’s a private matter, unless someone wants to be out there with it, but it’s hard for people.”

Steve Thompson, a longtime vendor who typically works midday on Front Street between Horizon Books and Red Ginger, said he likes to sell the paper, and he makes enough so that the money “takes care of my vices.”

He said he likes the chance the paper gives him to talk with people.

“They’re mostly friendly,” Thompson said. “I have a notion of myself to be self-sufficient, full of jokes, and I have a way of talking to people, so it’s generally calm.”




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