On Saturdays, Barry Maxwell loads a black rolling suitcase full of books onto the No. 10 bus to downtown Austin.
As he walks down Red River Street toward the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, he passes by curbs and alleyways where he used to hang out and sometimes made his bed for the night.
“I know that if you’re stuck someplace and it’s miserable that you need an out,” Maxwell said. “Being able to read something, almost anything, allowed me to keep my connection to the world around me outside of my homelessness.”
Maxwell, 55, is formerly homeless and runs a regular creative writing workshop at the ARCH open to Austin’s homeless community. He’s now a senior at the University of Texas, majoring in English.
The program, known as Street Lit, offers an opportunity for expression through creative writing to those struggling with homelessness or who have been homeless. Maxwell also offers books, which he said can serve as an escape from a trying situation.
Street Lit began as a book donation drive in fall 2013. Maxwell and three other students at Austin Community College took on the project as part of an assignment to make a difference in the community for a public speaking course.
At first, Maxwell was apprehensive.
He had moved off the streets and into an apartment only a year earlier, in summer 2012. He stayed at the ARCH on and off starting in December 2009.
“Once I left, I never wanted to go back to the shelter,” he said. “The homeless thing was still very fresh for me.”
But Maxwell’s memories of his time in the shelter eventually became a driving force behind the idea for taking Street Lit from a book donation program into a creative writing workshop.
Blowing up his life
Though he had nowhere to go when he arrived at the ARCH, Maxwell said the process of homelessness, for him, began much earlier.
He had been a part-time musician and owner of a maintenance and painting business in the mid-2000s. For years he had struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, but he said it got out of control after he pleaded guilty in 2007 to a misdemeanor DWI charge and spent 13 days in jail.
“The DWI was some sort of psychological critical mass,” Maxwell said. “It could have been a wake-up call, but I reacted more like it was a license to blow it completely.”
By March 2008, he had lost his business and used up the generosity of his friends. When he was evicted from his rental, he packed everything he could into a borrowed car.
Eventually he checked himself into the ARCH shelter.
Maxwell began delving into creative writing during a stint in rehab in November 2010. He was required by the rehab program to write.
No one ever read the pile of notebooks he filled up in rehab, but it didn’t matter. Writing, he said, changed his outlook on his life.
He went back to the ARCH after the 30 days in rehab were up but didn’t consider himself “homeless” again. He was determined not to let his housing situation define him.
“I credit it to the writing, most of which was centered on finding out who I thought I was,” Maxwell said. “It enabled me to shed that label (of homeless) and carry on without it.”
You can read a nonfiction short story by Barry Maxwell here.
*Warning: The story contains strong language*
A year of writing
The Street Lit writing workshop began a year ago and has attracted a handful of regulars.
On a given Saturday, up to a dozen people show up to drink fresh coffee in the ARCH’s second-floor conference room. They take turns reading their latest works.
Some read poems, while others read excerpts from short stories. Joshua Braun, a regular at the workshop, plays original songs on his acoustic guitar.
After everyone presents their pieces, the group takes turns going around the table offering advice on how to improve work and encouraging each other to continue writing.
Professors from UT and Austin Community College, including authors Elizabeth McCracken and Charlotte Gullick, have taught lessons or led discussions at Street Lit.
Maxwell met Gullick and McCracken through his classes. Both teach creative writing, and McCracken is an acclaimed author who moved to Austin in 2010.
The writing workshops have helped participants find new ways to be creative and deal with frustrations with their situation. Some pieces presented at the workshop tackle mental illness and the way society looks at homeless people.
Jennifer Jones has attended the Saturday workshops regularly since she became a resident at the ARCH shelter a year ago.
Jones said she had never been homeless before and found the situation overwhelming. She said trauma and abuse in her past made her want to not talk or interact with anyone in the shelter.
Seeing fliers for the writers group inside the shelter, however, piqued her interest. She had used writing in the past as a channel for her depression and decided to pick up the pen again.
She has since found housing but continues to come back to the ARCH for Street Lit.
“Writing helps me make sense of my mental issues and the traumas of my past, but it also helps me make sense of the world around me,” Jones said. “Sometimes I see things out in the world, good and bad, but it doesn’t hit me till it hits the page.”
The Street Lit group also can help provide a needed sense of normalcy and community to attendees.
Niko Joost found himself at the ARCH shortly after moving to Austin in April 2015.
Though college educated, Joost said he wasn’t able to find a job after moving here and wound up in the shelter for about six months.
He credits Street Lit with giving him a group of friends to hold him accountable to writing and a space where he could discover his voice as a writer.
“I was looking for something that could make me feel at least somewhat good about myself again,” he said. “Being able to have someplace to show up to every Saturday and write like hell in between — I reveled in that.”
Street Lit is the only regularly scheduled arts program available to residents inside the ARCH shelter. There have been different programs in the past, including painting classes and a songwriting workshop.
Mitchell Gibbs is the executive director of Front Steps, the nonprofit organization that manages the ARCH.
Gibbs said that ARCH supports the arts classes because they help combat some of the issues clients report struggling with, such as a sense of invisibility and feeling a loss of humanity.
“We focus so much on solving homelessness and getting people housed that we occasionally need to step back and say, ‘What is it going to take for you to connect with the world around you?’ And this is one of those opportunities,” Gibbs said.
Maxwell is looking at ways to expand the Street Lit program and is working to create a literary journal to publish some of the work from the program’s authors.
He said he hopes to continue to use creative writing as a way to empower people who are homeless or formerly homeless and who could enjoy writing.
He said he doesn’t kid himself that the group is “writing our way out of homelessness” but said the need is there for the homeless community in Austin to have an outlet for expression and escape.
“At the end of the day, you can’t really find fault with a group of homeless writers,” he said. “If nothing else, it keeps people out of trouble for a minute, keeps them engaged and keeps them thinking.”
Meet a few of the Street Lit authors and read some of their work.
Jennifer Jones, 30
At a recent Saturday meeting of the Street Lit writing workshop, Jones read a prose poem about her struggle with undiagnosed dissociative identity disorder.
Writing has always been the way that she works through trauma. She wrote her first book years ago, before she was homeless, documenting her depression and suicidal tendencies.
Jones moved to Austin with her husband last year, hoping to leave behind past traumas and an abusive relationship. The two ended up at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless after the friends they were staying with turned out to be using methamphetamine.
Her husband was arrested two weeks after they moved to the shelter and Jones was left homeless and alone.
She was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of strangers she was surrounded by living on the streets.
“You show up on the homeless scene and there are so many people who also have nowhere to go,” she said.
Jones overcame her fear and joined the Street Lit writers workshop. She rediscovered the power of writing in helping her make sense of herself and the world around her.
“I don’t think I would have made it through being homeless with the level of grace and dignity that I did,” she said. “I wouldn’t have survived without something like Street Lit that was steady and stable in a world that was so chaotic.”
Though she moved into an apartment in June, she returns to the group in the hopes of helping other writers in the program.
“No one wants to get out of homelessness to go sit in their house,” she said. “You get out of homelessness so you can turn around and help the next one up.”
Listen to Jones read her poem on mental illness and check out her blog here.
*Warning: The audio clip contains strong language.*
Dezi Reid, 57
Every group needs a “bad boy,” and for the Street Lit writers workshop that is Dezi Reid.
Other Street Lit participants have described Reid as a “cowboy” and “a fictional character.”
With his long, flowing hair and southern drawl, Reid takes pride in resisting proper form when it comes to his writing, sometimes to the chagrin of others.
“I don’t think my stuff would be nearly as good if I did it in perfect grammar,” he said. “I’ve got to have that little hillbilly hick country boy attitude to make my stuff work.”
Reid is a veteran of the Air Force who was born in Fort Worth.
For years, Reid said, he’s gone between having housing and living at the homeless shelter.
He first discovered writing as a kid and said being in the Street Lit group helped him rediscover that passion. He said he strives to be humorous and upbeat in his poems.
“Life has its up and downs, but I’ve always maintained a positive outlook that things will get better, and I share that through my writing.”
Reid said he’s been inspired through Street Lit to want to go into peer-support services for the homeless once he gets into housing and his life is stable.
“My mind and my pride are the two things I have left, and I want to use that to inspire others,” he said. “There’s always going to be people in a bad place, and either it’s going to get worse or we can find out way out.”
He is working on a compilation of poems called “Have a Dezi Day.”
Niko Joost, 62
Niko Joost moved back to Austin recently from Los Angeles after a successful 15-year stint in the sales industry.
With a degree from the University of Texas at Austin and a good work ethic, Joost said he thought finding work in Austin wouldn’t be hard.
But after a couple jobs that didn’t pan out, Joost said, a friend dropped him off outside the ARCH homeless shelter.
“I was in complete shock,” he said. “I’m a smart guy, I’m hardworking, I’m college educated, and I was just thinking, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
In Los Angeles, Joost pursued screenwriting. He found temporary jobs at Disney and other studios, but couldn’t get hired full time.
Once he moved into a full-time job in sales, he quit writing.
He picked it up again decades later when he joined Street Lit. Not only did the writing workshop help him rediscover his passion, Joost said it also helped his self-confidence.
“Even if my work never gets published, writing makes me feel better about myself, and when I feel better about myself I can be of better use to other people,” he said.
Participating in the Street Lit program kept him focused, impassioned and away from drugs and alcohol, Joost said.
He left the shelter in late 2015 after finding a sales job in Austin and securing an apartment. He continues to write almost every day and return to the Street Lit meetings.
“I really believe you always end up where you’re supposed to be,” he said. “I believe that my soul's intention was to be there, be a part of that group and rediscover my passion for writing.”
*Warning: The story contains strong language*