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Using Literature as a Force for Good Among Austin's Homeless Population

Through book donations and creative writing classes, one man is giving back to a community of which he was once a part. 

REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Every Saturday afternoon, Barry Maxwell unlocks the door to a conference room at the ARCH, the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. He sets up a coffee pot, and lines a table with a buffet of snacks. In one of the closets, there’s a stash of notebooks; he sets those out, too.

Because it’s the weekend, the ARCH is largely devoid of administrative staff. But that’s not a problem for Maxwell; he knows his way around. Just six years ago, he was living there.

Now, when Maxwell walks into the ARCH, it’s to host a weekly creative writing class for Austin’s homeless community through Street Lit, the organization he founded in 2013, originally to provide donated books to the shelter.

Maxwell was born in Austin; he’s 55 now, and first started staying at the ARCH at the end of 2009, following two years of semi-homelessness. When he finished high school in the late 1970s, he partied a lot, playing drums in a rock and roll band. “It took a long time to ruin everything,” Maxwell says.

While he was staying at the ARCH, books were what kept him going. Maxwell befriended a slightly younger crowd who’d been through college; they read and talked about books constantly. “That connection with readers and reading kept my head active,” Maxwell says. “It gave me something to hold onto, even when I was misbehaving and generally hopeless.”

The ARCH is a shelter, but it’s also a social service system for members of Austin’s population whose needs are yet to be met by citywide reform. On a given night in Austin, as many as 2,300 men and women are sleeping on the streets. From 2012-2013, more than 6,000 passed through the Day Resource Center at the ARCH, and more than 200 slept there each night.

The idea to bring books back to the ARCH, for Maxwell, was always present, but it didn’t take off right away. “Once you leave, you don’t necessarily want to go back,” he says. It took him a month of being in housing before he made contact with anyone at the shelter. “I didn’t want to go back down on those blocks of the city,” Maxwell says.

When he did, it was for one of his community college classes. The assignment was to organize a “Make a Difference” project, and Maxwell’s call out for books for the shelter brought in around 1,000 titles over the semester. After the class ended, the books kept coming in.

Maxwell, the Austin Community College professor Charlotte Gullick, and volunteer Austin Peterson delivering the first books to the ARCH in 2013. (Ian Marcotte)

Maxwell is now studying English at the University of Texas at Austin, from which he’ll graduate next year. His experience with his creative writing workshops at the University was unlike anything he had access to while was homeless. His classes hinge on vulnerability and self-reflection—liabilities when one is living on the street, with no safe place to return to.

“Even if you’re trying really hard to get housing, and behaving well and doing the right thing and are somewhat mentally healthy, it’s just such a dismal situation,” Maxwell says of his time living at the ARCH. “There’s so much boredom, and you don’t feel like you have a connection to anyone.”

Last June, Maxwell hosted the first writing class at the shelter. It would have been an incredible thing for him to have while he was there, Maxwell says; now, he’s back there every Saturday to bring that experience to others.

“It’s kind of a macho world down there at the ARCH, in a lot of ways,” Maxwell says. “There’s the impression that anything artistic would be looked down upon.” But that hasn’t been his experience over the past year. The administrative staff of the shelter have been supportive, and the class draws consistent attendance each week—there are around a half-dozen regulars whose projects range from short stories, to personal blogs, to poetry. “There’s always a condition of safety,” Maxwell says. “You can come in here and be as raw and emotional as necessary.”

Dezi Reid, a Street Lit author, holding up his collected poems. (LaVonne Roberts)

Over the past year, Maxwell has watched program participants come and go; some, like him, have secured housing, others have moved on to less certain destinations. Maxwell says that one participant who’s since moved into an apartment still attends the Saturday sessions.

But Maxwell remembers that it can be hard to retrace those steps back to the ARCH. He’s thinking of moving the workshops to an off-site location, both to grow the class sizes and open them up to a broader swath of the community. And looking to the Black Seed writers group, started by The Atlantic’s James Parker five years ago for the homeless population in Boston, Maxwell is considering collecting Street Lit’s writings into a journal.

But the most important thing for Maxwell is that the group keeps meeting and the writing keeps happening. One of his favorite exercises to give to a class is to have everyone pick an image that stands out from their day—a quarter-inch of sidewalk, the way a cigarette burns—and describe it. “It gets you looking through different eyes,” Maxwell says.

A change of perspective will not solve the homeless crisis in Austin; that will require the coordination of local government, plus housing and advocacy. But programs like Street Lit create, even if just for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, a sense of community that transcends the persistent uncertainty of homelessness.

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