Write the Way You Feel

Homeless poets find an outlet in street newspapers.
Image of a Megaphone vendor holding issues of the street paper in Vancouver, Canada.

Kanell Washington told everyone to call him “The Living Legend.” He liked that more than his legal name, Kenneth, and even more than his chosen name, Kanell. He once drew a thick book with “The Living Legend” scrawled across the cover in fancy script. Above his to-be-written story, he added a ribbon in the shape of an ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life, from which hung an hourglass quickly running out of sand. The image proved prescient.

Kanell was born and raised in Washington, DC. He lived on the city’s streets intermittently for three decades and made pocket money by selling copies of Street Sense, a newspaper about homelessness. He bought issues from the office on G Street for 50 cents a copy (up from 35 cents in 2013), and sold them for a few bucks to passersby, keeping the difference for walking-around money. His experiences on the street influenced his essays and poems, many of which were published in the very issues of Street Sense he sold.

In March of 2016, Kanell got the news he’d long waited for: the city had approved him for a housing voucher. He was finally going inside. April came, and he wrote a piece that began with advice he’d received from his mom: “If you persevere, then you can and will achieve your goals.” In May, he wrote about following his “moms and twin” to the “moon and stars above.” In June, he wrote a tribute to Hillary Clinton. In August, he wrote a recipe for ribs. But all that time, he still lived outside.

The months dragged on. Calls weren’t returned, necessary paperwork was riddled with errors or had gone missing. Nothing malicious, it seemed, just typical bureaucratic inefficiency. Kanell changed his care provider in hopes that someone new would push the voucher across the finish line and get him indoors, but those extra months outside were apparently too much for his 60-year-old body. Kanell’s kidneys failed, and he died on October 20, 2016.

Once news of Kanell’s death reached the Street Sense community, Angie Whitehurst, a fellow vendor and writer, composed a memorial poem for her friend. It took her less than an hour to write “The Red Tape Canal,” a 31-line, free-verse examination of the Living Legend’s life and death, which sums up the questions he left behind:

How much longer do we holler, yell and scream?
Another human being has died;
his value and dream immorally defied.

To all of us here, who respect all life,
we ask not how he died, but why?

Kanell’s death shook Whitehurst, but she knew that the systemic neglect underlying it wasn’t unusual. Neglect was the norm.

“It’s one person at a time, and it might take a long time,” Whitehurst says. “What disturbed me is that we have so much, but because it can’t get done between nine and five, Monday through Friday, people die.”

Whitehurst was born in 1952 at Freedmen’s Hospital (now Howard University Hospital), which primarily served DC’s Black residents. She’s written poetry throughout her life, she says, but “nothing serious.” When she was an undergraduate studying economics and political science at Connecticut College in the 1970s, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks spoke to a group of aspiring writers huddled in a lower basement level. Someone asked Brooks if you could write poetry without knowing the proper language, and she responded “write the way you talk, write the way you feel.” It’s advice that Whitehurst still follows.

Her work often focuses on homelessness and the structural inequities underlying it, because she’s lived it. Now 65, Whitehurst is inside, taking care of her mother, who is 89 and in poor health. But even now she recalls those moments on the street when “the housed” walked past her as if she was a ghost. “I don’t see you, I don’t know you, I don’t hear you, you do not exist. This is how we treat people who live on the street,” she says. “We are quick to psychologically, physically, spiritually throw them out. Disconnect. You do not exist.”

Having a steady roof over her head has allowed her to focus more on writing. “When you’re worried about where you’re going to get food, or you’re ill, or tired, don’t have health insurance, oh, who has the time to think about the artistic aesthetics of life?” she says.

A week after Kanell’s death, Whitehurst read “The Red Tape Canal” at his funeral service. The whole family was there: former social workers, other Street Sense vendors and writers, the editors who put it all together. A theater troupe of vendors performed a version of Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me,” and others delivered eulogies about Kanell’s resilient spirit and his ability to perfectly season anything he cooked. His memorial on the Street Sense website closes with lines from his prose poem “Survival of SELF”: “They can always see me. Just look on any park or corner and you will see me. Homeless.”

* * *

Not every city has a street newspaper, but many do—or at least used to before the papers’ precarious funding collapsed. Many papers are ancillary projects for nonprofits or charities, and are vulnerable if money dries up. The concept dates back to the War Cry, a weekly paper printed by the Salvation Army that debuted in 1879 and was sold in the pubs and slums of London’s Whitechapel district. The current incarnations began more than a century later, in 1989, with the simultaneous creation of Street News in New York City and Street Sheet in San Francisco.

According to the International Network of Street Papers (INSP), there are currently more than 100 papers in approximately 40 countries, printed in 24 languages. They feature work written by those who are homeless or have been, or otherwise feature journalism on the topic. Occasionally, the stories result in substantial change—such as the East Bay’s Street Spirit series on the horrors at East Bay Hospital, in Richmond, California, which led to the facility’s closure in 1997—but more often, they simply provide a platform for those who have none.

“Most stories about homelessness don’t even interview homeless persons, or if they do, they interview a bunch and quote whichever one resonates with whatever they’re trying to say,” says Quiver Watts, editor of Street Sheet, who sees the paper as a way to shine light on root causes in a way that most mainstream news sources miss. “The existence of homeless people kind of invalidates the whole economic system we’re living with.”

If you spend enough time in a major city, you’ll likely see vendors selling street papers in busy neighborhoods. According to the INSP, at any given time 9,300 vendors stand on street corners, mill around downtowns, or rest in heavily populated areas, yelling the name of their papers as they invite a sale. Each paper’s logistics differ depending on which nonprofit publishes it and how much money is in the coffers. DC’s Street Sense prints about 12,000 issues every two weeks. Vendors buy copies for 50 cents apiece and sell them on the street for two dollars or more. Street Sheet, in San Francisco, prints around 14,000 issues every other week and gives 50 copies to each vendor for free (although many vendors sweet talk their way into more copies). Vancouver’s Megaphone publishes between 3,000 and 5,000 issues per month, which vendors buy for 75 cents a copy and sell for two bucks. Papers tend to sell out most of their print runs. Some buy back unsold copies or trade them in for the latest edition.

“If someone comes in who’s never sold before, and wants to buy 100 books, we might pump the brakes and try to figure out a system that works for them,” says Jessica Hannon, executive director of Megaphone, which has roughly 40 to 50 vendors a month. “Some vendors are out there six days a week, rain, shine, snow, or hail. Some folks maybe just sell a few here or there, and engage more for the community and social aspect.”

James Witwicki, a Megaphone vendor, belongs to the latter category. He admits that he isn’t a great salesperson, since he’s not interested in adding to the world’s noise, but he appreciates how the paper provides an artistic outlet. He found Megaphone through word of mouth while staying at a shelter in downtown Vancouver’s east side. Prior to that, he lived on the street during a rough period of drugs, alcohol, and untreated bipolar affective disorder that manifested in depression. And before that, he’d worked for 15 years as a first aid provider at construction sites. Everything changed when his wife died in 2009. “I said, well, I don’t need to do this anymore. But instead of having a plan, I just kind of stopped working,” he says.

Witwicki lived at the shelter for seven months and eventually made his way to a 12-by-12 room in a single-room-occupancy hotel for low-income tenants. He received psychiatric assistance in the form of lithium. When he heard that Megaphone was looking for submissions for its annual calendar project, “Hope in Shadows,” he snapped a photo of his reflection in the window of his room at the Balmoral Hotel. He titled it “This is Me,” and the photo was accepted for publication. He began submitting poetry shortly after.

He used to run into Megaphone’s office with scraps of paper on which he’d scrawled his verse, but now he submits using the free internet at the library. He doesn’t go out of his way to seek inspiration. “I call myself a hunter-gatherer,” he says. “I pick it up as I go along.” He reads the Bible, and occasionally picks through mainstream newspapers for material. He reads other poetry, too: the classics like Milton and Lord Byron, but also contemporary work from fellow Megaphone contributors. He studied literature in college, thinking he’d become a journalist, but he didn’t get interested in poetry until recently. He once heard advice from author Margaret Laurence that he still remembers when he writes: take it all in, then “sigh and settle” before trying to compose your own work.

Witwicki rarely mentions homelessness in his poetry. He prefers to write about the human soul and the natural world. In “Me. You. Tipping Canoe,” he sketches the broad details of seven canoe journeys, the first two with a partner “practicing not tipping,” and the last two in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, alone, without a paddle, without even a canoe:

Still grieving your ending.
Clinging to my beginning.
No tipping. No falling.
No sinking. No dreading.

“[Poetry] lends itself to the expression of wonderful things, challenging things, and commonalities in the human experience, as well as the uniqueness of individual experiences,” Hannon says. “Poetry offers a window into experience in a really visceral way.”

Eric Falquero, editor-in-chief of Street Sense, points to a piece titled “Arugula Salad (2012—Remixed),” by James Davis, that satirizes how different economic classes view the eponymous plant. “[Y]our billionaires, your millionaires, your Wall Street financiers” see it as something to go with their wine, the middle class “contemplate the rising cost,” and “your broken-downs, your homeless, your hobos” all stand in the employment line and ask each other: “What the hell is arugula?”

Street Sheet devotes an annual issue to poetry, written by those who have experienced homelessness and those who are currently incarcerated. For the most recent poetry issue, published in January, Watts solicited submissions via ads in newspapers that incarcerated people receive, on social media, and on flyers distributed to local homeless encampments. The outreach resulted in around 50 submissions, more than “aesthetically made sense” to print. Watts doctored the paper’s font to jam in as many poems as possible over the eight pages.

“We get a lot of article submissions from white men, for whatever reason, but our poetry issue is mainly black folks, and a lot of women,” Watts says. “A lot of the submissions this year had this dedicated hopefulness. Like, everything is shit, but I still love myself, so fuck it.”

The poetry offers a glimpse into a world that’s largely unexamined. In “The Landlady,” Clyde Always tells of doing odd jobs for a “lovely lady” who owns a boarding house, until he’s suddenly ousted:

But then she sent me on my way
abruptly so and shocking;
I packed my bag in time to say
‘goodbye’ and started walking.
These days, my youth is gone and dead
and money ain’t no issue,
yet still, I lay awake in bed
and weep... into a tissue…

David Kubrin’s “Homeless Lessons to Rachel Lyra” asks for simple human empathy when considering the lives of those in tent encampments:

You, consider what cheap escape
You would turn to if continual danger,
Sleeping on wet pavements, hunger, &
Roused by cops or DPW at 4AM on a daily
Basis tore your humanity & your soul
To shreds & eliminated any hopes
You once might have borne;

“Crawl Space” by Tony Robles imagines street life as a domain contested by tarnished overseers and human “ants”:

Crawl spaces
Where ants arm
Themselves with
Fumes designed and
Cooked and concocted
To kill them

And emperors dressed
In glorified rags and
The shredded skin of
The moon say in the
Tone of an entombed God
“I go and prepare a crawl
Space for you”

Other poems in the issue have titles such as “Between Homes” and “Silicon City.” Gianni Jones’s “My Creative Space” begins:

I create space for myself to feel, to love, to grow
Humanity in its essence is addressing the needs of every human across the globe
I advocate for resolutions that uplift and edify others
To build communities that support and humanize one another
Not to live in a perfect world but to live the essence of humanity in every way

Jones began working with Street Sheet in December of 2016. She was encouraged to self-publish her own book of poetry, Emerging Butterfly, Poetic Cocoon, last October. Its 45 pages reflect her “experiences with love, motherhood, humanity, and ideals of femininity.” She credits Street Sense for giving her the push she needed to write. “It’s important to have these outlets,” she says.

Born and raised in the Bay Area in the mid-1980s, Jones has watched the region change. An influx of tech industry transplants, an inability to build housing at the rate needed, and an explosion in profit-driven development have resulted in dramatic rent hikes. A one-bedroom in the area currently averages between $2,000 and $3,000 a month. “Where do they expect people to get this money?” Jones asks. “You can have a decent job and still have difficulties, which is very strange to me.”

This has created a situation in which some of the world’s wealthiest live alongside a growing homeless population—more than 10,000 in San Francisco and Alameda Counties at last count. Jones was included in that count once, but she now lives inside. She works as a case manager for a supportive housing facility. When she’s not writing poetry—occasionally tapping out the verses on her phone while riding BART, the region’s public transit system—she assists those in need to maintain their own housing, links them with community resources, and advocates for their rights.

“I’m trying to prevent my clients from experiencing homelessness,” she says. “To maintain your housing is to still feel human.”

Late in our conversation, I ask Whitehurst to sum up the importance of street papers and why their continued existence is a vital bridge between the housed and the homeless. “It’s easy to walk by a person who’s homeless, easy to ignore someone who’s panhandling, easy to see somebody who might have bandages, and a walker, and look raggedy, and not stop and say ‘may I help you?’” she says. “So, we write these stories and poems to give us a voice. We share our hopes, joys, downfalls, our failures, dreams, and desires. We’re human, all human, and it’s something that can happen to anybody, although most people don’t realize it.”

Originally Published: September 24th, 2018

Rick Paulas has written for the New York Times, The Awl, Vice, Pacific Standard, Longreads, Wired, and more. Born in Chicago, he has lived in California for more than a decade.