At first glance Dave and Raelene have very little in common. But something that bonds them is their experiences of homelessness – which led to them selling Big Issue North and Denver Voice magazines respectively. Over a Skype chat, the pair share very candid life journeys and some of the challenges they’ve faced over the years. They both agree that selling their street papers has left a positive impact on their lives.
Dave: Is there a lot of street homelessness or begging in your city?
Raelene: Oh yeah. There’s a lot of people who will hold up a sign on a street corner saying that they’re homeless, in the hope that someone will throw money out of their cars.
And there are people asleep right on the streets in Denver. They just set up tents and after a while the cops will move them on and they will move to another block and start all over again.
D: That’s what it’s like here. Exactly the same. And what’s the healthcare like in America, for people like yourself with not much money?
R: Well, I’m on disability so I get healthcare from the government. But a lot of people out there can’t qualify to get that. That’s why the jails are very crowded.
They would rather jail the homeless instead of finding a place for them and getting them mental health evaluations…
Do you ever write for the paper?
R: Why not? Don’t you have anything to say?
D: Who would really listen?
R: Whoever reads the paper!
D: I suppose so. I’ve never thought of doing it.
R: Well, all my life they said I couldn’t do nothing. I taught myself to read and write at 28. Now my editor says that I write with such passion because I can talk about the pain and the abuse and the homelessness, and people appreciate how far I came and what I’ve got to say. You can release a lot from inside you if you can let it out.
D: Yeah of course. A problem shared is a problem halved, as they say.
R: And I like the title – paid author. What was your life like before the paper?
D: My life was good. But then I fell on some hard times and a friend of mine introduced me to Big Issue North and I’ve sold it ever since. I’ve been selling quite a long time – about 20 years.
R: Wow, 20 years. I think that’s awesome. When I started selling The Voice, I was sleeping under a bridge. I was a drug addict and the paper gave me a job. They didn’t care that I was homeless, a felon, they didn’t care that I didn’t have a high school diploma.
They gave me 10 free papers and a badge. Two years later I broke a 30-year crack cocaine addiction and in March I’ll be seven years clean.
D: Wow – brilliant.
R: Now I have my own home. I’ve got pets, I’m even raising two chickens. I’ll get eggs from them soon.
D: A friend of mine used to have one of those baby pigs.
D: But it grew to be a big pig.
R: That’s what people don’t realise. They say they’re small pigs, but they grow into big ones.
D: They used to have it in his house.
R: Do you have your own home?
D: I used to but I fell behind with the rent so instead of letting them take it off me, I gave it up, because that way I could go back.
R: Right. So do you rent a room?
D: I stay with a friend at the moment.
R: At least you’re not on the streets.
D: I have been. It’s not nice.
R: Do you have a car?
D: No. I use public transport. I’ve not had a car since 1988. That was the last car I had.
R: You know what I’m driving? A 1977 Chevrolet Caprice classic. It’s all original. I have automatic windows, cruise control, automatic lock. And it’s got a speedometer that says fuel economy, if you put your foot down too fast that gauge shoots to the right and says, get off the gas, you’re burning it up. My car outlasted the dealership in Denver. They’re no longer in existence but my car’s still going.
D: I like driving. I used to drive all over England.
R: You see, I never had my driver’s licence until six years ago, in my mid-fifties. And now I just love driving. The gas is cheap. I just got it yesterday for two dollars and five cents a gallon.
D: You wouldn’t get that here. It’s a lot more expensive and I don’t miss the cost of it.
What do you make of the American political elections?
R: It’s a joke. We got a man who has never been in office at all, who has bankrupted his own businesses three times and he wants to run the government?
And we got Hillary, who I voted for because she’s been in government, but she’s very secretive. She does stuff that we don’t know about. So this year has been a joke.
D: Well, I always got brought up not to trust them, you know? Government people. Because they always say they are going to do a lot of stuff but never deliver.
R: Oh yes.
D: I’m 45 and I’ve never voted, and that’s the reason why.
R: What is the biggest thing that the paper has done for you?
D: It’s given me my confidence back. Just gave me my life back. When I became homeless I didn’t have a lot, like yourself.
R: All my life they told me I was mentally retarded. They said I’m incapable of an intelligent conversation after two minutes. I don’t have a watch on but we’ve broke that side of the record because you’ve been understanding everything I say, right?
D: Yeah, course I have. Yeah.
R: When I started selling the paper, it built the self-esteem up within me and I started getting self-worth, self-confidence. I think that’s the biggest thing it has done for me, to make me believe in myself.
D: A lot of people couldn’t do what we do.
R: Oh yes. Most people do not have the confidence to walk up to a perfect stranger, start a conversation and try to get them to buy something.
D: I get a lot of people telling me their problems, problems with their health, the breakup of their families. I give them a lot of good advice because I’ve been there myself. I’m a bit like the street social worker.
R: Exactly. We’re willing to listen to their problems. We’re willing to give them advice from our past experiences. I’ve got one friend – they own a jewellery store – they are one of my biggest fans because they watched when I was sleeping under a bridge.
They watched when I was on drugs and when I got off of it. They watched when I changed my life over the years and that’s what they like about the paper. And I help to fundraise for The Voice when we do our silent auctions. The last time I went to see them they gave me almost $300 (£240) in silver jewellery for us to auction.
I love the worth that people see in me that I can walk out of the store with merchandise and they know it’s going right to where it’s supposed to go. The first year I did it, I was blown away – that people actually trusted me and I actually got it to where it was supposed to go, you know?
D: Well, it goes to show you how far you’ve come, with the help of people and yourself. I’ve been there myself. A lot of people – you’ll get this yourself – people walk past and their pace gets quicker. They’ll pull out their phone just to look at it rather than look at you.
R: Oh yeah, I’ve seen that – when all of a sudden they see you standing there and they purposely walk around you. I just look at them and say: “Have a blessed day!”
D: It’s unnecessary because I’d only ask them if they wanted to buy a magazine and it’s either yes or no, isn’t it?
R: Well, I don’t care who don’t like me because I like me today. I love me today! And I can’t take up space in my head worrying about what someone else is thinking about me.
Let them think what they think about me. If you don’t got nothing positive to say to me I don’t have to stand around and listen to you.
D: I just wish them a good day.
R: I had a woman that went up to me and I said: “Hi, I work for the Denver Voice.” And she said: “I don’t help people like you.” And I couldn’t figure out what “people like you” meant.
I’m not begging. I’m not bumming. I’m not out there lying, cheating and stealing. I’m out here working. So what did “people like me” mean? She went past me and I said: “And you have a very blessed day ma’am!”
D: Well, to me that’s just her putting you down to make herself feel good.
R: Well, as the saying goes, misery loves company, and miserable people like to make others feel miserable.
D: I think you’ve got to be happy. It’s the only way forward, isn’t it? I mean for people who have been where we have been in life. It’s not nice being there, is it?
R: No. That’s why I just try and be the best person I can be, the kindest person I can be, the happiest person I can be. I wake up smiling.
Every day is a beautiful day to me.