Giving them a voice
Atlanta Overlook tells the homeless’ side of the story
Published: Sunday, December 4, 2011
The courtyard of Mercy Community Church quietly fills up with knit-cap covered heads, each waiting patiently for their turn at fresh coffee. As the Bible study next door lets out, Jeremy Godfrey prepares pens and paper for his writer’s workshop class held inside the church. The workshops are designed to help the writers that contribute to his newspaper, Atlanta Overlook, fine-tune their writing skills. However, the Overlook is no ordinary newspaper: the entire writing staff of the paper is homeless.
“I prefer the term residentially-challenged,” said Gerald, a homeless writer attending the workshop. “When you say residentially-challenged, you can always get a smile out of someone. ” Godfrey, an English professor at Georgia State working on his dissertation, has been an active volunteer with homeless-affiliated organizations before creating the Atlanta Overlook.
Godfrey said that “not a lot of people know about street papers in general,” but most major cities in North America and Canada now have papers similar in concept to the Overlook. These papers were what drew Godfrey’s initial inspiration. “I was in the library researching and came across Nashville’s Contributor, which has been established since 2007, has a monthly circulation of over 150,000, which is incredible,” Godfrey said. “It’s basically aphenomenon.”
Godfrey traveled to Nashville to meet with Tasha French, theContributor’s executive director, to see how her street paper operated. “I was like, ‘wow, I could do this’ and got really excited,” Godfrey said.
Godfrey was an active volunteer at Mercy Community Church and they graciously agreed to partner with him to host the workshops.
Meeting Monday and Thursday mornings, the church workshop hosts seven to twelve homeless people on average. On these days, men and women of varying ages and ethnicities gather around wooden tables in an area that doubles as an art room.
During one of the meetings last Thursday a woman walked into the room in the middle of the workshop activity, inquiring if this is the place where the homeless people can come and write.
“I’m a writer! I’m a writer!” said a woman named Beth, who fell on hard times since she returned to the Atlanta area from California. She said she hopes to enroll at Georgia State sometime soon. Another peculiarity of the paper is that the writers double as newspaper vendors as well, which they sell for a dollar a piece.
“That’s part of the method of empowerment, the way I see it,” Godfrey said. “There’s that one-on-one interaction between the public, passersby, and the vendors.” “[This is] a way of reaching a public that views homelessness in a negative light, hopefully bringing those two sides together; the public and the marginalized community,” he continued.
One of the most successful vendors is a homeless man named Steve, who said he is grateful for the Occupy Atlanta protesters because they make such great costumers. “If you go to a rally with Jeremy, you are going to sell some papers,” Godfrey said. “The people of Occupy Atlanta are ready to hear what we have to say.”
During the workshop last Thursday, the writers and vendors made it clear that they want to make sure their personal distribution of the paper is informative and not perpetuating stereotypes that they say marginalize the homeless “Now, [shoppers] have these homeless papers in their face, they see it as a nuisance… they are trying to shop,” said Legend, a writer for Overlook that is known for his hand-made jewelry, which he sells in Little Five Points.
He said that he has witnessed over-ambitious solicitation of the paper in that area. How and where they sell the paper matters, especially if they don’t want to drive costumers away. One concern is weather to promote the paper in areas that are notorious for homeless drug abuse. “The people that distribute [Overlook] represent the paper,” said Richard, a homeless writer and vendor who is concerned that untactful distribution could hurt Overlook’s image and stain their message.
Even with these dangers, Godfrey believes in the positive impact of the paper on the lives of those who contribute to it. “I’ve had people who write for the paper come up to me and say, ‘this is really changing my life,'” Godfrey said. Godfrey has felt the impact as well.
“It’s really helped me rethink my teaching here at Georgia State,” Godfrey said. “How do you build community? You have so many people from different walks of life walk through the door. “This is kind of like my life goal.”