Streetspeech: Empowering Columbus’ Homeless

2 years ago ccwa 0
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Streetspeech distributor in Columbus, OH

I’m sitting in the Subway on 13th and High Street. I would’ve much rather have had this conversation in an obscure café fit for a writer, but Jon insists on eating while we talk. Across from me, sipping his coke while wiping the remaining beads of sweat from his forehead, is Jon Small. During my first two years in college, Jon stood in the same spot in front of that aforementioned Subway asking me for money while holding a stack of newspapers; towards the end of my sophomore year I gave in and gave him a dollar, but he wanted more than that. “Thanks for the blessing brother, but read what I have to say!” he told me, as he shoved a newspaper into my hand. A year later, I’ve asked him to sit down with me to talk about Streetspeech, the publication I have since become a regular reader of.

Streetspeech has a somewhat grandiose purpose, best expressed through its grandiose slogan, “the voice from the streets of Columbus.” Essentially, it tries to take the city’s homeless and turn them into writers, hoping to create some sort of financial security through artistic job creation. Mr. Small is a vendor and a writer, a man whom I’ve come to know only superficially. Before we talk about his writing, I decide to ask him about how Streetspeech has changed his life. His first instinct is to tell me it hasn’t. “Or… well, yes it has. I was anti-social, but now I get to meet a lot of good people. It’s changed my attitude. I’m not so skeptical towards strangers anymore.” His newfound openness to people goes hand in hand with his business savvy: Jon’s spot is at a crosswalk, where he uses the 30 seconds provided to him by a red light to charismatically pitch his product.

Jon’s life has been a bit of a rollercoaster, and in retrospect, the odds of him becoming a writer in Ohio seemed lottery-esque. A machinist by trade, Jon used to live and work in Syracuse, New York. He looks around; “I used to do all that stuff. I liked setting up… machinery,” he says, pointing at the lights, pipes, and walls. At the peak of his profession, Jon made 23 dollars an hour, and while it was not enough to live comfortably, he enjoyed being able to provide for his family. Jon’s persona is one shaped by the years; his voice is raspy form the chain-smoking, and he talks slow, putting an intense amount of thought into how he phrases himself. I figure time has taught him to watch what he says. However, his voice picks up when he speaks of machining, and his passion for the odd job fills the room.

The economy hit his business hard, and Jon lost his job a few years ago. “So I went to ITT Tech, got my associate’s degree, trying to compete.” Ready to get back in the workforce, things quickly got more complicated as personal issues started to erupt. “Family problems” and “marital issues” are the phrases he use, and it takes a bit of prodding before he’s ready to explain what those mean. Jon asks me not to publish the dirty details, but suffice to say that his marriage was one of turmoil and financial abuse. In addition to his domestic problems, Jon was then asked by his family to come back to Columbus, his hometown, to meet a mortgage he couldn’t afford. Eventually, it all bubbled over, and Jon became homeless.

“It’s not so much lack of effort, it’s that you lose your will. It just kept throwing things at me,” says Jon, referring to his life. Through friends who went from homelessness to writing for Streetspeech, Jon decided, reluctantly at first, to follow the same path. Whether or not Jon had chosen to write for Streetspeech, I honestly believe he would’ve recovered either way. He’s proven that he’s capable and self-sufficient. However, what unmistakably draws me to Jon is his writing. It’s almost paradoxical: as a writer, he has as many grammatical errors as a fifth grader, and in that sense his work lacks severely. Yet Jon has a firm grasp on an intangible goal that most writers are constantly pursuing yet never attaining: his voice shines through his work. I could tell Jon had a calm, cutting, witty persona before I got to know him. The same attitude that he uses to sell papers day in and day out translates flawlessly into his writing, and I felt as though I had a grasp on Jon’s voice long before I personally talked to him.

But for all the praise I earnestly give him for his writing, Jon doesn’t seem interested. And it’s not modesty that I’m seeing, it’s indifference to the writing process itself; it’s not so much that he doesn’t enjoy it, but that, to him, it’s not the best part of the process. “I get to meet people, it gives me so much freedom man.” Jon’s voice picks up again, as he goes into the details of the relationships he’s built, which aren’t always rosy. One can easily imagine the daily abuse a man asking for donations go to, and the prototypical “get a job” (to which Jon routinely responds to with a tongue-in-cheek “I thought I was doing that”) are regularly thrown at him, but the animosity grows beyond that.

Two negative relationships in his life stand out, the latter of which truly surprises me: his relationship with police and the homeless. “I stand there for thirty, forty-five minutes and he comes up to me, asking what gives me the right to stand out here selling my stuff,” he says referring to one particular incident. Jon’s response is typical of the cool irreverent attitude I’ve come to know, as he looks down and monotonically reads the entire 12 lines on his badge (both to the cop, and then later on to me). As for his dynamic with Columbus’s homeless, the envious eye has ruined any chance of camaraderie. As I jot down my notes, Jon pulls out a knife. “I mean, I don’t like that I have to carry this everywhere man.”

Jon works about six hours a day, going home with a usual 70 dollars in his pocket. His longest rants are on the pain not being to provide gives him. I’m still not sure how Streetspeech affects its writers, even after talking to one of their better writers for an hour. My skepticism stops me from thinking programs like Streetspeech can truly alleviate homelessness, especially after learning of Jon’s income (and to make matters worse, Jon’s unique charisma and work stamina make him an outlier). But then Jon puts it simply for me; Streetspeech might never fully represent all of Columbus’s homeless population, and it may not give its staff full financial security. But what it does is, in a sense, nonetheless quite necessary and, as Jon explains, hard to find. “It gives me an option. I can write and sell something, or I can mug and steel and rob. A lot of people don’t have that option, and I’m just glad I do.”

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by Yehia Mekawi

(photo credit: Lee Castor, flickr.com; NB: photograph does not show Jon Small)