They Just Made it Happen
Two homeless vendors whose paths diverged. A piece of recommended reporting that you have to read. Links. An editorial volunteer opportunity, and more.
It was 2014. Speak Up’s Charlotte office was about to close for the day when two young men waltzed in looking for a job. They'd heard from a friend that Speak Up offered tools and resources for people facing homelessness to become their own magazine-selling micro-business owners.
I briefly explained the model and invited them to return the following day for a formal training session. They agreed to do so, but asked if they could take a few copies of the magazine to read through. I gave them each four different issues and off they went.
The next day they came back, right on schedule, but empty-handed.
"Where are those magazines?" I asked.
They looked at each other and grinned.
Danny was dressed in a suit—always in a suit—with his hair neatly parted. (“Even if I am homeless I want to look good an feel good about myself," he would explain later.) His friend, Boston, wore a polo shirt tucked into khakis and had short, unruly hair.
Boston spoke up. "We sold them."
“What? But you are supposed to go through a training session first. You need to sign a code of conduct—you need a Speak Up ID badge."
“We didn’t need any of that stuff. We are really good salesmen,” Boston explained. “We had to have the money for a motel room."
“Yep, it was easy,” said David. “We just went into Walmart and headed to the magazine section. When people came over browsing for something, we offered them copies of Speak Up and explained that by buying it they’d be giving us a job and others a voice."
They looked at me and grinned.
“How much did you sell them for?” I asked. At the time the cover price was three dollars.
Boston answered. "Twenty bucks each."
I gaped them, searching for an appropriate rebuke, but the best I found was, "You can't do that. Any of that.“
They had violated the first tenets of Speak Up’s code of conduct, which was “Don’t sell magazines on private property without permission.” They had also broken the forth rule: “Only sell the magazines for the cover price.”
But as they stood in front of me, smiling apologetically, I couldn’t help but smile back and appreciate their initiative. They had an opportunity in hand (literally) and they went for it. Rather than wait for permission, they just made it happen.
They would both join Speak Up as magazine sellers, with mixed results.
David, the snappy dresser in a suit and tie, took a disciplined, methodical approach. He was able to sell enough magazines to get off the streets. He got into a motel, then into an apartment, and eventually into lasting stability. He dropped in a couple years ago for a visit, to say hello and talk about two things: his love for Bernie Sanders and the thrill of his newborn daughter.
Boston took a different path. He was the more rambunctious of the two—bubbling over with grandiose stories, always the life of the party, and prone to 100-mile-an-hour monologues. He was also a drug addict and had no problem lying to me or to potential customers to make a sale. The addiction and lying made his time with Speak Up rocky and brief. After a number of run-ins, we both agreed that it wasn’t the best fit for him at the time. Sometimes he'd visit the office with his friend, David, and I suspected he was secretly selling magazines on the side.
A year later David dropped by alone. He had a somber look on his face. "Boston died last night. He overdosed in a motel with his girlfriend.“
For me, Boston remains yet another another unfinished story. I never got to know him well and his addiction was too much of a barrier for the Speak Up opportunity to be a real benefit.
Yet he lingers in my mind. There was something magnetic, perhaps inspiring, about his fearless drive to seize the moment. True, he was driven by his addiction, but it was more than that. Homeless and addicted, he somehow managed to stay unusually positive—cheerful, ambitious, perpetually convinced that he could move forward on his own momentum.
If only he’d sought help. Who knows where he would be today.
On the topic of homelessness and overdose deaths:
Here’s a superb piece by Michael Shellenberger on Common Sense, reporting on the devastation of San Francisco from pervasive homelessness and city-sanctioned public drug use. It isn't an easy read, due to content and some language, but is worth your time. Shocking stat: Over the last two years, twice as many San Franciscans have died from drug overdoses as have perished from Covid.
[San Francisco] is carrying out a bizarre medical experiment whereby addicts are given everything they need to maintain their addiction—cash, hot meals, shelter—in exchange for . . . almost nothing. Voters have found themselves in the strange position of paying for fentanyl, meth and crack use on public property.
You can go and witness all of this if you simply walk down Market Street and peek your head over a newly erected fence in the southwest corner of United Nations Plaza. You will see that the city is permitting people to openly use and even deal drugs in a cordoned-off area of the public square.
Read it all: Slow-Motion Suicide in San Francisco
A Voice for Even More Voiceless
Speak Up Mag, the digital, straight-to-email version of the magazine that you are reading now, came online just over thirteen months ago. Since then, nearly 100 essays and stories have been published, from dozens of writers facing homelessness.
Our content charter is to be a voice for the voiceless—a place where those without a platform can speak up. So far, that's meant homeless writers. In the year ahead, we want to see it expand. Earlier this week, Speak Up shared Letters from Prison. This will be the first of many pieces in the Behind Bars section, featuring essays from currently-incarcerated writers.
Expanding the content means we get to expand the team. We’re looking for volunteers to help find and curate writings from first-generation immigrants and refugees—either directly from those individuals or by forming partnerships with service organizations. Do you have a skill set, connection, or simply a desire to be involved in this way? We need you! Please contact Matt Shaw via email: matt @ speakupmag.com.
Here are some recent pieces from Speak Up that are not to be missed.
Letters From Prison
Franklin’s brief letters to Speak Up from the NY State prison system.
I Am Vince
Battling homeless. Staying sober.
Meet Hippie & An Introduction
How Michael ended up on the streets. And his interview at a Chattanooga homeless village.
On and Off the Streets
Falling into homelessness. Then fighting out of it.
Pain & Gain
The Hard-Knock Lessons of Harold Twitty, Mechanic Philosopher
One Person Helps One Person
For ten years, Speak Up worked directly with people facing homelessness in a local setting. For a decade, dozens of people each year partnered with Speak Up to become street vendors who write and sell magazines. They’d buy copies for a low price, sell them, keep the cash, use most of the money for life expenses, and set some aside to buy more magazines. It created a cycle of empowerment that has worked for hundreds of people.
Pursuit Packs expand this model, and grow Speak Up from a local organization helping a few dozen people annually to a larger project in which one person helps one person—repeated thousands of times throughout the country. Each Pursuit Pack contains “a job in a box”—a chance for someone facing homelessness to sell something (a voice-giving magazine) for immediate cash and then to build recurring income by selling subscriptions to Speak Up Mag.
In the previous model, the opportunity was shared word-of-mouth and homeless folks came to an office in Charlotte, NC. With Pursuit Packs, anyone anywhere is now able to pursue those needy folks no matter where they are. When you see someone on your drive or stroll, you bring the opportunity to them.
The immediate cash and long-term income is just the start for the recipient of a Pursuit Pack. There’s also an online community (since everyone now has a phone) for ongoing support, the sharing of resources, writing workshops, connections to other services, and more.
But this model truly depends on the volunteers to make it happen. Thanks to willing folks, Pursuit Packs are now in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. In just one month’s time!
Next up: your community. Will you take a Pursuit Pack to someone in need? Request one here.
Equally Important: Will you make a Pursuit Pack?
These cost money—both the initial creation as well as the follow up time and resources—and donors like you are essential. You’ve funded 65 so far this year. Thank you! We want to get to 1,000. Please donate and help make it happen.