Walking into Earl’s Grocery on my way to pick up the best vegan brownie in town and do some writing of my own, I come across Ruth. She and I haven’t met, but even from a distance, I know what she’s there for.
As Ruth stands behind a folding table, covered not with cloth or banners but with various editions of a magazine she both writes for and helps sell, she stops me and asks if I’d like to take a look at some of the works in front of her.
Aside from a full-color glossy version of the magazine itself were a handful of smaller ‘zines — some featuring art, one a coloring book depicting homeless people in Charlotte and another written entirely by Ruth herself. Her personal publication is all about the cats she’s had over the years.
A Taiwanese immigrant, Ruth Hsieh is somewhat new to the publishing world, and she’s found a niche, a voice and an opportunity with Speak Up Magazine.
I first heard about Speak Up in 2011, right as Matt Shaw and his wife, Lana, were preparing to launch the magazine. We’d met at the Free Store, a currency-free, donation-based store previously located in Area 15 on East 15th and North Davidson streets. Here, the homeless, financially challenged or everyday-anti-consumerist could drop off unused belongings and/or shop for free, following the store’s tagline: “Give what you want, take what you need.” This was the exact demographic Shaw was looking to connect with.
Shaw had a vision: not just to be a voice for the voiceless, but to find those people who aren’t being heard and give them their own platform. Over the past eight years, he has worked tirelessly to produce, fund, print and distribute Speak Up, a magazine written and distributed primarily by homeless residents of Charlotte.
After living in Chicago, Shaw was inspired both by Streetwise Magazine and his parent’s similar project in the Philippines. The premise is simple: publish a magazine written by the homeless and sold by the homeless, allowing them the dignity of creating art and starting their own entrepreneurial endeavors.
Shaw’s work is largely done in quiet, his name known primarily in his own community, empowering people forgotten in the proliferation of shiny new development that Charlotte has seen, lost amid massive growth and the pummeling of those the world sees as less-than.
Aside from outside inspiration, the name Speak Up and the idea itself were inspired by a Bible verse that Shaw paraphrases as saying, “Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves.”
Speak Up writers aren’t beating readers over the head with tales of woe related to living on the streets. By allowing people struggling with homelessness to tell their own stories, the magazine serves to humanize those who write stories and allow readers to see what they have in common with each story’s author.
Stories range from puff pieces — quite literally in the case of Ruth and her cats — to dark stories about depression or desperation, plus everything in between. Ruth writes about happy times with her feline friends, but also about losing a cat that was like family to her and the grief that she still feels about it today.
When we meet in front of Earl’s, she can’t help but talk to me about her cat, showing me the cover of her ‘zine with its photo, her headshot and the tagline “Cats are my best friends.”
Vince Shumate, another writer and vendor, writes about his near demise: the night he almost took his own life. Wandering around the streets of Asheville, drunk, cold and alone at 5 a.m., he found a knife stashed outside the courthouse that he assumed was left behind by someone entering. He picked it up and thought long and hard. He wrote about deciding then and there what he wanted: life or death.
“When that knife was in my hand, I wasn’t seeing the knife. I was looking Death in the eyes,” Shumate writes.
After being hospitalized and choosing to get clean, he wrote an award-winning journal documenting his life on the streets over a week, complete with photos.
Then there are people like Edward Smalls, who in his short work slowly and succinctly walks the reader through what it was like to lose his son to gun violence. Even with his poignant words, it’s hard to truly imagine the pain of his loss, or the endurance necessary to look past that and continue in his daily life on the streets.
In our own respective daily grind, noticing and diverting eye contact with vendors on the streets asking for a moment of our time and a few dollars in exchange for their story, these voices are often the last we want to hear.
Sheila, a poet and vendor for Speak Up, sees this reluctance on an almost-daily basis. While she has repeat customers, eagerly anticipating each edition, she’s run into her share of annoyed and sometimes indignant people.
“People get confused,” Sheila says. “We’re not bums. We’re not panhandling. We’re selling our work. We are being given a way to get what we want, as opposed to just getting what’s given in the shelters.”
She goes on to talk about what she’s learned from Shaw, who sits with vendors week in and week out over lunch and in his Hawthorne Lane office.
“Matt tells us we owe people respect and that, really, they owe us nothing,” Sheila says.
Shaw is helping guide his vendors, who have become his friends, teaching a lesson in treating others how you wish to be treated, not with the same level of indignation with which they may be treating you.
Earleen Mingo, another writer and vendor, sells magazines in Plaza Midwood, where she and Sheila jokingly have turf wars. After leaving her job to care for her ailing mother, Mingo’s resources slowly waned until she was left without a place to rest her head.
When selling her magazines, she says she “asks one and if they say no, I move on.”
Like Sheila, she emphasizes that this is a legitimate profession, that she’s not begging for anything. Like any other business, she’s helping to produce a good and then selling it.
In front of Earl’s Grocery, as the September sun bears down on our shoulders, Ruth sells me on both her work as well as that of Smalls, generously giving me a 2-for-1 deal that I tried to talk her out of, apologizing profusely for not having any cash (a curse of the times).
She hushes me with her hand and pulls out a card reader and attaches it to her phone, breaking down any barriers there may be to her earning her living.
Ruth, like other vendors, got her start with Speak Up by selling 20 issues given to her for free. She then took to the streets, selling these magazines at $5 each. Once those were sold, she was able to return and purchase more magazines for $1 each, a nominal fee that covers printing, puts a little toward the nonprofit itself and allows the vendor a financial investment, thus dignity in their own endeavor. Vendors then return to the street to sell the magazines for a $4 profit.
The model works. Really well, actually.
“One guy earned $264 in a single day, which got him off the streets for a week,” Shaw says. “Another lady sold magazines for a weekend, earned enough to get her commercial driver’s license, and she now drives semi-trucks for a living. The best stories are the ones where a homeless person turns the little Speak Up seed into a flourishing future.”
He tells of a man who started selling magazines in January and was earning enough to get an apartment by February. By April, he owned a car, and a month later had saved enough to start his own power-washing business.”
Dignity, purpose, voice. Basic human needs we all crave and often take for granted. Many of us are able to work for them on a daily basis, speaking up for ourselves when need be and working towards goals we’ve easily set.
And thanks to Speak Up, these vendors can, too.
The beauty of this model is that vendors are not employed by Speak Up, but work for themselves, able to make their own decisions about work hours, financial investment and other choices — a dignity that the systems in place rarely afford the working class.
“Unlike some of the scam-like organizations where homeless people are set out to collect money for a ‘ministry,’ our homeless partners never collect money for Speak Up,” Shaw says. “When you buy a magazine from one of them, you are purchasing something they already own — and therefore they keep the money and decide what to do with it.”
So next time you see a Speak Up vendor in NoDa, Plaza Midwood, Uptown, know that to support them means supporting local at the root level.
Not to mention that, as an alt media publication ourselves, we’re always down to hear more oft-ignored voices get amplified in Charlotte.