On 4 March at 9.30am, a homeless woman was found unresponsive on the streets of Colorado Springs, wrapped against the -1°C / 29°F cold in a blanket. Raven Canon was at least the ninth person to die on the city’s streets this winter, activists say. She was also a rising star in her community, an effective community organiser and activist, and the editor-in-chief of the world’s newest street paper.
Days after her body was found under a pavilion near Highway 115 on the south side of Colorado Springs, the cause of Raven’s death is not obvious – but the impact she had could not be clearer. Her hometown has reacted with shock and sorrow, as have her international street paper colleagues.
Raven started her street paper journey as a vendor for Real Change in Seattle. Though selling didn’t work out for her, the concept had an impact. When she found herself homeless in Colorado Springs she decided that what the city needed was a street paper – and she set out to make that a reality. Impressed by her vision and drive, Real Change founder and INSP board member Tim Harris acted as an adviser. He put her in touch with INSP in December last year.
“I am in a mad dash to come up with the last couple of hundred dollars we need to go to press,” she told me in her first email. “I am very honoured to be able to do all that I am currently working on. I am amazed at all that has happened and all that lies before us.”
It wasn’t until I spoke to her on the phone for the first time that I realised she was sleeping in a tent or in all-night cafes. “It’s a battle,” she admitted at the time. “I’m emotionally exhausted.”
Raven spent most of her life fighting to stay off the street. She was born with gastroschisis [a birth defect in which the baby is born with their intestines outside of its body], and fought stomach problems her whole life. She worked in bars for years, never far from the breadline. When she quit drinking due to addiction problems, she lost her profession and her income source. Homelessness caught up with her.
“Why am I on the streets? I could say that it was one event, which was the officer who sexually assaulted me and I had to file charges” she told Colorado Springs advocacy group Coalition for Compassion and Action (CCA) last year. “I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I ended up in Pueblo [in Colorado], which is where I’m from. Pueblo has no resources, so I came to the nearest larger city that had services, which is why I am in Colorado Springs.
“But when I look back, if I’m honest, I’ve been struggling to stay off the streets for 20 years. Eventually it happened that I could no longer keep my head above water.”
Raven’s friend Linda Laba says that the odds were always stacked against her, “But she rose above the odds and the statistics.”
Linda calls herself a sister to Raven. They met years ago, when Raven was living on the U.S. island territory of Guam, in Micronesia. Back then, Raven was known by her given name of Crystal Tippens. (She changed her name recently to Raven to symbolise her new life.)
“I met her through my involvement in a 12-step programme,” Linda says, on the phone from Guam, as her chickens crow outside. “We got very close because she’s just such an extraordinary person.”
Formerly homeless and fighting her own battles with addiction, Linda was a mentor to Raven. They’d just celebrated Raven reaching her one-year anniversary of sobriety. But it was far from a one-way relationship. “She probably thinks I was helping her, but of course, in reality she was a big help to me,” Linda explains – one of many to repeat the sentiment. “I saw in her such a jewel – and she proved me right. It’s obvious in the last year, with everything she accomplished, that she really was a great person.”
Linda works as a substance abuse counsellor at the Oasis Empowerment Centre in Guam, so she has helped plenty of people facing the same demons as Raven. What was it that made their relationship special? “I loved her heart. Her spirit. Crystal had the kind of heart where she wouldn’t let anyone suffer – she wouldn’t let them die alone. She marched to her own beat. And I loved that.”
Colorado Springs activist Trygve Bundgaard first met Raven last year through her campaigning on behalf of the homeless community in which she lived. The board chair at Blackbird Outreach and a director at CCA, he was organising a sit-in protest against the city’s proposed sit-lie ordinance – a draconian bylaw designed to force homeless people out of public spaces.
“She reached out to me on the phone and had some great ideas about ways to poke the city a little bit, and ways to be provocative. We instantly connected,” says Trygve. “She’s a very striking person, especially when you realise that she’s out on the streets.” Trygve, like Linda, is having problems with moving into the past tense when talking about Raven.
“Until the very end, she was the most fiercely articulate and intelligent person,” he continues. “I think that’s part of what made her so effective and powerful as a community organiser and an activist. She defied everyone’s expectations of what someone surviving outside should look and sound like.”
Though still struggling with housing, Raven’s trademark grit saw her get the first edition of The Springs Echo out in January. She had secured the last couple of hundred dollars she needed from a donor. Although, in fact, thanks to administrative delays, fellow street paper Denver Voice ended up loaning her money so she could take delivery of the first papers. “I must say I am impressed with… her drive and determination,” Denver Voice editor Sarah Harvey told INSP.
It was clear, Linda and Trygve agree, that Raven was turning her life around. After months of hard work, she’d achieved her ambition of starting the Springs Echo; she’d got to grips with her alcohol problems and some legal issues; and since the start of 2017 she’d found a room to stay in with friends.
Her advocacy work was starting to cut through too. According to Colorado Springs city councillor William Murray, “She was a rising star in the community.”
On 17 January, during one of our many ongoing Facebook chats, she told me, “I love that I can be a walking example to those still on the streets that you can go from rock bottom to the top.” She’d secured funding to travel to the Global Street Paper Summit in Manchester this summer and was looking forward to meeting her colleagues from all over the world. When I sent her pictures of The Springs Echo’s first edition featuring in INSP’s exhibition Uncovered: Still Homeless, Still an Issue in Glasgow, UK, she was ecstatic and put the exhibition on the front page of the second edition. She titled the story: ‘The Echo heard around the world’.
Then on Thursday 2 March, she messaged with more troubling news. She felt that she could no longer stay in her home and so was back on the streets. “I feel like a failure,” she said. “I am just so, so tired… and afraid I might die outside.”
Raven’s friends are still trying to work out exactly what happened between Thursday and Saturday morning, when her fear came true. She’d contacted Linda, Trygve, Tim Harris and Councilman Murray on Thursday too, in obvious distress. Her final, heart-breaking post to Facebook that day read: “All I ever really wanted was a home no one would take away from me. A HOME.”
“That’s the core root of what I’m struggling with so much right now,” Trygve says. “In my last conversation with her on Thursday, I could tell she was down. I could hear the hopelessness in her voice but I could not get out of her why it was different. As far as I could see, everything was in place for an amazing new chapter to her life.”
So far, the authorities have shed little light on Raven’s death. The Colorado Springs Police Department said that there was no foul play, whilst the coroner’s office says they will not have any comment until their report is ready in six to eight weeks’ time.
From her home in Guam, Linda has been gathering what information she can by talking to the people around Raven. “She was awake at 5.30am, she got sleepy and wrapped herself in a blanket that she had gotten somewhere,” she says. “She went to sleep… and I guess it was so cold out… and she’s such a little thing. When they went to get her up at 9.30, she was unresponsive.”
Raven had been estranged from her daughter for a long time, but just before her death they had started to talk again. Lesley Tippens is crowdfunding to raise enough money to cremate her mother and spread her ashes in the sea. “I want to take her to Panama, Florida to the ocean and spread her ashes there into the ocean,” Lesley wrote on the GoFundMe page. “Thank you to everyone who had donated or shared my post. Y’all are making this seem much more possible than if I were doing this on my own.” At the time of writing, she’d raised $1,620 of her $1,800 goal.
Councilman Murray donated $320 to the fund. “Actually, I was ashamed because I could have given her that money before the funeral,” he says. “Afterwards it doesn’t count, does it? It’s a condolence, not a promise for the future. Had I offered it to her up front maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”
The what-ifs will continue for everyone that knew Raven. Everyone she contacted last week told her the same things – you inspire us, you are a success, we’re there for you. Somehow, it didn’t break through.
“I think probably the saddest thing, in hindsight, is that she kept telling me that she felt so alone,” says Trygve. “Her death has clearly shown how not-alone she was.” Scores of people plan to attend a memorial event for her on Sunday that Trygve and others have arranged.
Tim Harris has fought for homeless communities in the US for more than two decades, but he says that Raven will stay with him. “Raven didn’t know ‘too much to give’,” he says. “She was driven by love, and offered up her own broken heart every day, taking care of others and fighting for basic human dignity. That’s an inspiration I’ll carry with me the rest of my life.”
Raven once told me that she was “so very blessed” to be part of the street paper movement. In the days since her death, the best email I’ve had was from Steve Saint-Thomas, a career journalist who had advised her on the paper. The subject line was: “The Springs Echo lives on!” There could be no better tribute, or legacy.
INSP members who wish to publish this story can find it on the INSP News Service.