Speak Up vendor creates activity book to help kids understand homelessness

Randy Parcher has been writing about his experiences of homelessness for Speak Up since the Michigan street paper launched in Traverse City in 2014.

But when he learned that, in 2014, more than one-fifth of homeless people in shelters across the U.S. were aged 17 and under, the vendor decided it was time to target his message to a much younger audience.

Matt, Isaac and Isabel Shaw read Understanding Homelessness. Credit: Deb Shaw

In January, Randy published a children’s activity book called Understanding Homelessness: Where Will Teddy Sleep? It explains in simple terms that not everyone has the same kind of home to sleep in.

“We don’t want to scare kids so it really doesn’t hit on a lot of stigmas but instead shows those experiencing homelessness that they are not alone,” Randy explained.

Understanding Homelessness is aimed at children aged seven and under. In 23 pages of colouring activities, it takes a teddy bear on a journey to different places where a homeless person might sleep.

“I used a teddy bear because it’s familiar to children and non-threatening. I think it helps to show that we’re just normal people,” added Randy.

Boiling down such a complex issue to its simplest terms was a challenge for the vendor. But it’s a subject Randy is familiar with.

The 46-year-old and his partner Laurie Koelsch have experienced homelessness for nearly seven years. During that time the pair lived mostly in a van converted into a makeshift mobile home, and spent the cold winter months sleeping in homeless shelters and churches around Traverse City.

Randy Parcher.

Many places illustrated in the book include situations where Randy has found shelter in the past, such as a car, a cardboard box and a tent.

The initial printing cost for 300 copies was funded through a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe. The book is currently being sold in Horizon Books in Traverse City – where it is currently number three in the store’s non-fiction chart. It can also be purchased online.

Randy believes teaching young people about homelessness will help to promote a wider understanding, acceptance and compassion about the issue.

His book also contains a two-page story for parents to read to their kids and some guidance on how to discuss the issue with children. Randy’s first tip is for adults to re-evaluate how they themselves think about homelessness.

Randy shared his book with the students at Greenspire School in Traverse City, who were later inspired to camp out for a night in December to raise awareness of homelessness.

“It shows those experiencing homelessness that they are not alone.”

He hopes to do more presentations in schools in the future, and believes that the book could be a helpful resource for teachers and parents.

Matt Shaw is the co-founder of Speak Up’s sister street paper in Charlotte, Speak Up Zine. As a father of two, Matt said the book was a useful tool for parents to help a younger generation understand the realities of homelessness.

“I appreciated that the book invited the readers to draw their own conclusions,” added Matt. 

“Whether at home with parents or in the classroom, Randy’s book creates a great opportunity for meaningful discussion about cultural and economic disparities.

“It’s also fun! My kids were really engaged by it. I’m looking forward to buying copies for friends and family.”

The book has already been a hit with Matt’s son Isaac, nine, and daughter Isabel, six. “It was a really fun, silly book. I think it’s cute and it’s teaching us about how homeless people live,” Isaac said.

Randy says street papers like Speak Up are another valuable tool in raising awareness about homelessness.

“Not only does it raise an awareness of what it’s like to be out here on the streets, it also shows not everyone is going to fall in to those stereotypes of a homeless person being a drunk or an addict. You have people who are out on the street selling these papers as an actual job, and it’s hard to get a job when you hit rock bottom.”

In December 2015, Randy and his partner finally moved into their own two bed apartment in a low income housing complex in Traverse City, just in time for Christmas.

He now has his own room with extra space for a writing desk and his drawing board.

“It was great being in a place for December,” he said. “It was really different at first. It echoed every time we talked. It took Laurie a few weeks to get used to me asking ‘are you ready to go home?’”

Randy is now working on a sequel to Understanding Homelessness, as well as an anthology of all his writing to date. He says he already has the perfect title – Echoes from an Asphalt Mattress: Notes and Side-notes on Homelessness.