© 2024 South Carolina Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Folks facing homelessness get a voice in Rock Hill – their own

Speak Up Magazine looks to give an outlet to voices not typically heard. The magazine's founder, Matt Shaw, is starting with writers' workshops in Rock Hill, following almost a decade in Charlotte.
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
Speak Up Magazine looks to give an outlet to voices not typically heard. The magazine's founder, Matt Shaw, is starting with writers' workshops in Rock Hill, following almost a decade in Charlotte.

Mark didn’t ask for money.

Ben wasn’t looking to take a bath in a public fountain.

And yet, those were the assumptions people made of them.

Ben, a combat veteran now living on the streets, has a saying for that: “Assumption is the mother of all ****ups.”

Mark very much agrees.

But bad assumptions come with the territory when you don’t live indoors, these men say.

Mark was looking at a car – “I’m a car guy” – and wanted to take a picture of it with his phone. The owner, he says, saw him and threatened to call the police; said he wouldn’t give Mark any money.

“I didn’t ask for any money,” he says. “I was looking at your car.”

Mark left before the police came, but days later, the incident still sticks to him.

“I was really offended,” he says. “I was really demoralized by that.”

Ben had wanted to sit and look at the fountain in Rock Hill’s Fountain Park, but wasn’t sure how to find it. He asked a man where it was.

“His first assumption was, do you want to take a bath there?’” Ben says. “I’m like, ‘How dare you? “I’m a veteran, I’m an ordained minister.’ I just wanted someplace quiet to sit.”

Like Mark, Ben carries this interaction with him days later. Neither man wants to. They’ve both got their entire lives strapped to their backs, and that’s heavy enough without the weight of people’s assumptions.

“The fact that I may be homeless is irrelevant,” Mark says. “Don’t stereotype me.”

These gentlemen tell these stories in a group, a writer’s workshop at the York County Library’s Rock Hill branch. This meetup is the first of its kind in Rock Hill, organized by the founder of Speak Up Magazine, Matt Shaw.

“Speak Up has been around for about a decade,” Shaw says. “We've been based in Charlotte and we got our start with the idea to be a magazine written by people on the streets, that people facing homelessness would sell. It gives them a job and a chance to make money and also allows them to move forward and make positive community connections with dignity.”

Folks experiencing any level of homelessness can submit their stories to Speak Up. The magazine pays 7 cents per word for personal tales of life on the streets.

The money, however, is only part of the value to the four attendees at the first Rock Hill Speak Up writers’ workshop – Ben, Mark, Thomas, and Naomi. The writers are given prompts, such as “I am” and “homelessness is,” and asked to put their thoughts on paper. Later, they will write more experiential essays designed to get them started on what Shaw hopes will be publishable stories for the magazine.

The aim is not just to pay people for their work, it’s also to give them agency; a voice, where voicelessness and invisibility are the norm.

Sitting among these writers, it’s impossible to not be moved by their experiences; angered by how so many people make them feel; and struck by how they completely do not see their situation as the defining characteristic of their lives. When prompted to write “I am,” the writers say things like “worthy,” “blessed,” “optimistic,” and “strong.”

What they want from this workshop is connection. After two hours, a lot of (really powerful) coffee, a few doughnuts, and a lot of free-form conversation about their lives and perspectives, they do have more of that. Shaw wants to make these excursions a weekly thing, which the library is open to, and the writers say they’re looking forward to coming back.

Writers like Ben – who, for the record, is a published poet already – say workshops like this are important for bringing out the empathy and humanity in all of us.

“I had no idea how it was until I was one of the disenfranchised,” Ben says. “Until you walk a mile in somebody's shoes, you have no idea what they're experiencing, what their daily life is like. And I believe this gentleman right here (Shaw) is going to help in making a difference.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.