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Overlooked share homeless tales in The Overlook

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By Isabelle Taft and Jolie Jones

In December 2010, Jeremy Godfrey, Ph.D. candidate and adjunct instructor in Rhetoric and Composition at Georgia State University, was walking in downtown Atlanta when a man stopped him and posed this question: “Do I look homeless?”

“What does homelessness look like?” Godfrey retorted.

This incident reignited his interest in homelessness, an issue in which Godfrey said he has always been involved. That night, he went home and began researching street newspapers—newspapers written and distributed by homeless communities in cities across the country.

After months of searching for a community partner, he discovered the Mercy Community Church, a kind of homeless community center located on Ponce de Leon Avenue, and established The Atlanta Overlook, Atlanta’s first street newspaper.

“The model of Mercy Community Church fits very closely with the model of the paper, which is allowing homeless people to speak for themselves,” Godfrey said.

The two goals of the newspaper are writing and empowerment, Godfrey said.

“The Atlanta Overlook has been a gift from God,” said a staffer, who called himself Harvey Wallbanger. He described himself as “houseless” and said he has enjoyed contributing to the newspaper. “If you’re winding up in a very low spot, the paper reminds you how high up you can go again.”

Volume 1, Issue III, published in November 2011, includes news stories about Occupy Atlanta, other local news stories and a creative/commentary section. Many of the stories address local issues from a homeless perspective. The creative/commentary section includes poems and other creative works about the life of a homeless person. Readers can find pictures, both in color and black and white, on every page, and the back of the paper lists the phone numbers and addresses of shelters and homeless organizations in Atlanta.

“People have been super excited [about the paper]. There’s a real sense of pride and ownership,” said Chad Hyatt, founder of Mercy Community Church. “People are saying ‘Hey, I wrote that!’ Even people who aren’t doing the writing say, ‘Hey, this is us! I know that guy!’’’

Bishop Calhoun, who graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1979, is a frequent visitor of Mercy. Although not a contributor to The Overlook, he said he appreciates the paper’s focus on homeless issues and the opportunity it gives homeless writers to share their work.

“The newspaper is like a voice,” Calhoun said.  “It’s one place [homeless people] can speak and nobody will cut them off.”

The homeless writers handwrite their stories, poems and creative writings and give them to Godfrey, who types and edits them. He then compiles the submissions and executes the layout of the paper. Godfrey said the greatest challenge The Overlook faces is one familiar to anyone who has ever worked on a publication.

“Just as with any news organization, it’s hard to keep people on task,” Godfrey said.

The paper is a relatively low-cost production.

“Printing is the only cost we have to cover,” Godfrey said. “Everything else pretty much comes from my pocket.”

Godfrey located a printing company in Cape Girardeau, Mo., which prints 1,000 copies of the paper for $300. The money to pay the printer comes strictly from grants from religious-based foundations. Thus far, Godfrey has applied for and received grants from the Episcopal Charities Foundation and the Presbyterian Hunger Program.

The Overlook comes out once a month, and all stories turned in by deadline are published. Ten copies are given to vendors to sell on the streets for $1each. The roles of writer and vendor are not mutually exclusive; some people write but don’t vend, some vend but don’t write, and others perform both tasks. Recently, Godfrey has started to charge vendors 25 cents for each copy over their initial ten. The goal is to pay writers for their work, starting at $1 for each submission, he said.

“Part of the model for the paper is vending papers and offering means of temporary employment,” Godfrey said.

Wallbanger saw the chance to write for a newspaper as more than just a microeconomic opportunity.

“Having a job to do gives you a routine of being respectable, proud of your ability to do what you thought you’d never be able to do again,” Wallbanger said. “It gives you an identity.”

Maggie Leonard, one of the pastors at the Mercy Community Church, said the street newspaper model fit with the ethos of the church, which strives to serve as a community for the city’s homeless. In addition to Bible study, church services and meals three days a week, Mercy offers writing classes.

“We also do art and music, so we saw the paper as another way to do that, where people can proclaim their worth and show that their perspective is noteworthy,” Leonard said.

As part of its partnership with The Overlook, Mercy has begun hosting Kat Greene, a journalist at the Atlanta Business Chronicle, to teach journalism classes every Thursday. Two of Godfrey’s colleagues at Georgia State, Bill Taft and Sarah Hughes, have taught creative writing classes to members of the Overlook staff.

Currently, the Atlanta Overlook’s circulation is at 1,000 copies, though Godfrey hopes to eventually reach 150,000. That number is the circulation of the Nashville Contributor, the nation’s largest street newspaper.

“Across the U.S. mainstream, newspaper sales are declining, but street-newspaper sales are increasing,” Godfrey said.

In November, Godfrey and several vendors of The Overlook traveled to Columbus to participate in a peace march and sell copies of the paper.

“We got a lot of plaudits,” said Adam Shapiro, a non-homeless contributor to The Overlook. “It’s just really heartwarming.”

Although The Overlook has been extremely well-received among the homeless and non-homeless alike, it faces a challenge in the form of city laws restricting vendors who seek to sell their wares in the downtown area. Beginning this year, the city is requiring downtown vendors to rent a kiosk for between $500 and $1,600 a month. For homeless vendors, such a fee is insurmountable.

“One of our missions is to spread to downtown, and that’s a huge challenge we face,” Godfrey said. “I’m actually working with a lawyer right now to ensure that, as members of the press, we can sell as vendors, just like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.”

Despite the challenges, Godfrey, The Overlook staff and members of Atlanta’s homeless community remain excited about the paper’s future.

“What’s so great about the newspaper is that it’s teaching people to fish instead of fishing for them,” Godfrey said. “People want to feel important.”

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Overlooked share homeless tales in The Overlook