By Amelia Black
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer
When the Homelessness Outreach Poverty Eradication committee of the UNC-Chapel Hill Campus Y completed their award-winning documentary “Faces of Franklin” in the spring of 2008, the committee members were exhausted but not satisfied. After hearing the powerful voices of the Chapel Hill homeless community through the documentary, naturally the next question for HOPE leaders was, “What’s next?”
What came next was another trailblazing project that would give the homeless in the Chapel Hill area a continuous outlet for sharing their stories and lives. Talking Sidewalks, a literary magazine composed entirely from homeless authors and artists in the Chapel Hill area, was born.
The first issue of the magazine was released last fall, and the second issue is being released Wednesday, April 1, during HOPE’s Poverty Awareness Week.
“They came to us and were like, ‘What do you want from us?’ And we were like, ‘Well, what do you want from us?’” said Thomas Baker, one of the magazine’s artists, on the beginning stages of the project. Baker had been recently dropped off at the Inter-Faith Council’s men’s residential facility on Franklin Street by his wife because of marriage difficulty when he heard HOPE was trying to start a paper for the homeless.
Baker, who has a love for writing, felt excited about the prospect of the literary magazine and worked quickly to get other residents at the shelter involved.
“Because he was inside the community we were trying to reach, Thomas was so crucial in us gaining people’s trust,” said Jonathan Young, an active leader with HOPE who produced “Faces of Franklin” and handles all the “techie stuff” for the committee.
“We always had to keep emphasizing that this was not for profit because exploitation is a common thing in the homeless community, and it’s not easy to gain their trust,” Young said. “Thomas was important because he kept emphasizing to people that it was just for the homeless community to have a creative outlet for expression.”
After flirting around with the project idea during the spring, HOPE jumped right into having weekly creative writing workshops at the residential facility in the fall of 2008. Virginia Boyd, a local author who works for Hidden Voices, a nonprofit that helps diverse communities learn different formats of storytelling, planned lessons and prompts and led the workshops and discussions for the first issue.
At first there were only three to four people at the meetings, which were held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday nights. During the beginning, committee members would round up people for 30 minutes and then start at around 7:30 p.m. with introductions.
“Initially, introductions took about an hour long because it always turned into, ‘My name is so-and-so and this is how I got here,’” Young said. “Seeing the immediate vulnerability and honesty that comes out of the guys is always really emotional, intimate and personal. We got to know who they are and where they’re coming from, and we’re really just a group of friends now.”
The group quickly grew with each meeting, and there are now 15 to 20 regular attendees. After listening to people’s introductions, group members would look for passionate elements in each others’ stories and talk about how they could convert them into literary form.
From those meetings, the magazine was molded into a collection of stories and poems. Residents at the shelter took the photos, decided how the magazine would look and even designed the layout on computers at the UNC-CH Undergraduate Library.
“Everybody’s got a story to tell, and no matter what we’re going through in our life writing our stories is so meditative and serves as a release point for so many people,” Baker said. “We’re not asking for anything in return but just to read our stories, have compassion for us and know that we are human beings. We’re just going through hard times.”
The magazine has fostered its own community at the residential facility, what Baker refers to as a “fraternity.”
“It bonded us,” he said. “I brought a stack of papers, and they were grabbing them and looking forward to them because they’re our stories.”
And HOPE volunteers felt like they were part of the artists’ community too.
“I feel like Talking Sidewalks has built a strong sense of community and social support within the group of writers and with the volunteers,” said Maggie West, who has co-chaired HOPE for the past two years. “A couple of guys have asked us to recommend them on job applications because we know of all the work they have done on the magazine. It has given people their pride and dignity back because they know people are listening, reading and want to hear their stories.”
The majority of funding for the first issue came from a grant from Strowd Roses, Inc., a nonprofit foundation dedicated to supporting the greater community of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. HOPE’s goal is to produce Talking Sidewalks three times a year with one issue released per semester and one during the summer. About 1,000 copies of both editions were printed, and the second issue grew by eight pages.
Both HOPE leaders and Baker emphasize that all the credit for the magazine belongs to the writers, and HOPE’s eventual plan is to build a small staff to organize the magazine completely through residents at the residential facility.
With Talking Sidewalks under way and flourishing, you should believe that HOPE is not slowing down. The group already has its hands in other major projects to continue uplifting the homeless, including a similar magazine set to come out of the Inter-Faith Council’s women’s shelter on Homestead Road.
Also in progress are plans for a community garden and an employment program for the homeless in Chapel Hill.
“It has really helped me to better understand where the gaps are in the system to hear people tell how they became homeless,” West said. “I have learned a lot about how individuals can fill those gaps and what myself and other people can do to help.”
March 27 through April 3, HOPE is sponsoring Poverty Awareness week at UNC-Chapel Hill. The official release for the second edition is Wednesday, April 1, at 5pm in the Campus-Y Faculty Lounge.