Mike first showed up at Speak Up’s Charlotte office with two friends. They’d been living together in an abandoned house for a couple months.
His friends were sharp and mostly addiction-free. When they heard about the Speak Up opportunity—homeless people write a magazine, sell it, and keep the profits—they were instantly excited.
“I’ve been waiting for something like for years,” said the older of the three. He would go on to become one of Speak Up’s star vendors. He’d buy magazines, sell them, use some of the money to buy more magazines, and then sell those. Within a few months, he’d worked his way off the streets, bought a car, and saved enough to launch a small business in another industry.
The second of the three was young, bright, and a gifted songwriter. He also knew how to talk, a handy skill for sales, and was able to make good money as a magazine street vendor. After a year with Speak Up, he drifted on, but soon landed a restaurant job, found a serious girlfriend, and started a family.
Things didn’t go as well for Mike.
His addiction to alcohol was too much. He lasted just a couple days as a magazine vendor. “Don’t sell the magazine while drinking” was a guideline that he simply couldn’t follow, and instead opted for panhandling and busking. True to his nickname—Sidewalk—he spent most of his time on the sidewalk: begging, playing his guitar for tips, and sleeping drunk.
Mike’s alcoholism was bad. He drank mouthwash. It was cheap, contained a high percentage of alcohol, and easy to find. It had the added benefit of an overpowering minty fresh smell, which hid the obvious scent of booze. Drinking mouthwash can lead to oral cancer, organ failure, and death. Mike did it anyway.
Although he didn’t last as a magazine vendor, Mike was a regular within the Speak Up community. He would come to the weekly pancake breakfast, participate in writing workshops, and offer a steady stream of self-deprecating jokes. Usually we saw him in the mornings when he was sober-ish and desperate for coffee. His smile was quick and his generosity to others on the streets was memorable.
Earlier this week Speak Up published one of his essays. “Call me Sidewalk” is a mixture of easy optimism and brutal glimpses of reality.
Sometimes I even prefer being on the streets. I come and go as I please. I wake up when I want, the same choice I make when I go to sleep. Maybe you have a nagging boss? I don’t. Did you remember to pay the light bill? I have candles. Life is easier with less stuff and fewer rules.
Okay, not everything is better about my life. I don’t have a home or TV or fridge or air conditioner or heat. I don’t have safety. Just my tent and blankets.
One of the last times I saw Mike was when I turned him away from a public event at Speak Up. Writing workshop teacher Harry Griffin had just published a collection of essays and we were hosting a book release party. There was music, free food, and readings from the author. More than 40 people packed into the small space for a memorable evening.
When Mike arrived slurring, cursing, and stumbling drunk I gently told him that he'd have to leave.
The next time I saw him he was distant and cool. The easy grin was gone and he lingered outside with a cigarette instead of coming in with the others. One of his friends said that he was hurt and felt betrayed by my rejection. I tried to talk with him about it, but he shrugged me off and wouldn’t make eye contact.
He disappeared for a couple months and when I saw him again he seemed to have forgotten the whole incident.
Less than a year later, he was dead. He passed away in the same place he spent most of his time. On the sidewalk.
I’m not sure how things were for him during the final months of his life. But I can guess they weren’t good. He was homeless and battered by addiction, so it isn’t hard to fill in the blanks.
Over the years, I’ve come into contact with many hundreds of people facing homelessness, each of them living out a unique story. In many cases, the larger arc of their stories show a hopeful turn—better choices, intentional steps, and significant breakthroughs. These courageous folks battling homelessness often escape the streets. They find jobs. Get sober. Turn their lives around. Overcome trauma. Forgive others. Forgive themselves. They move forward.
Those are wonderful stories to share and celebrate. I wish they all went that way. But sometimes they just end. The stories and the lives simply end, shocking and maddening with their incompleteness.
I have a couple dozen of photos of Mike.
They are pictures of a man alive. Warm, goofy, pensive. He’s at a table writing. He’s posing in his abandoned house. He’s mugging for the camera at a picnic. We see him alone with his guitar. Grinning with a friend. Caught in a moment of reflection.
You can see the pain behind his eyes.
In the photos, he won’t die in a year. In the photos, his future will be measured in decades. His homelessness will end, the addiction will lose its power, and he will always have tomorrow.
Speak Up provides economic opportunity and a voice to those facing homelessness.
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