Word on the Street

By Dwayne Pride, Voice Vendor  |  Photo by Sarah Harvey

Denver VOICE vendor interviews a formerly homeless staff member of Baltimore’s street paper.

Dwayne PrideA few months ago I was attending a conference in Denver and I had the pleasure of meeting a man from the Baltimore. His name was Damien Haussling. He handed me a black and white paper called Word on the Street, Baltimore’s street paper. We talked about it for a few minutes. 

Anybody who was anybody knew at the time that major civil unrest was going on in Baltimore. I could not help but ask him what he thought was really going on there, since he was part of an organization that was right next to the street. Which led me to ask him more about it in general. In fact, he said that I could call him when he got back to Baltimore to find out more about what was going on. He handed me his card from The Homeless Speakers Bureau where he also works as a coordinator. I could not help taking him up on the offer to find out more about another group dedicated to helping the homeless.

After watching breaking news bits a day or two after we met I gave Damien a call. We played phone tag for days on end. I left him several messages. Finally we did talk really late at night. My phone died! Rioting continued in Baltimore. That was it. I figured that nothing else would come of my initial meeting with Damien.

A couple months had passed, and I decided to go one step further. Even though what had happened in Baltimore did not seem to go away, I decided to go to the city. Eventually I hoped that I could make my way to Baltimore to continue my conversation with a guy who I thought might clue me in to the real pulse of this trying setback to the hard working people of that city. Even though it seemed like a blind chance, I decided to go ahead and take it. 

After days of riding Greyhound buses from city to city, back east is finally where I ended after a few trials that were overcome. No money at all in my pocket. With only a stream of emails to let Damien know what I really wanted to know about the riots:

 

Dwayne Pride: What has been going on in the city of Baltimore since the riots have ended? How has the homeless community been affected by the riots? Let me rephrase that first question: What has been going on in the city of Baltimore since the riots started? What is your current living situation? Are you homeless?

 

Damien Haussling: I prefer to say “unrest” rather than “riots.” Baltimore is recovering. I was without housing for essentially the entire time between January 2003 and November 2011. I am in housing now.

 

 After a brief stint in New Orleans checking out all kinds of beautiful women at the Essence Festival, I headed the other direction with a cheap ticket to Washington, D.C., that would get me as close as possible to Baltimore. 

I called Damien the second that I got to Union Station. Finally, after weeks of trying, we talked voice to voice. He told me to come over to his office to spend the afternoon. That is what I did (even though it actually took a couple of more days). The MARC train, eight bucks, a notebook, and bags in tow. A one-hour train ride to get to Baltimore to check out what was really going on. 

After arriving at Baltimore’s Penn station, I immediately jumped on the bus to find 235 Holliday St. A marquee read Real News in front. This was the location of Word on the Street and The Homeless Speakers Bureau, a nonprofit organization that allows homeless individuals to speak to the public and at special engagements.

I gave Damien a call. He came down shortly thereafter, invited me into the place to sit down for a while. We started off talking about the paper. It’s an independent publication led by people that have experienced homelessness that exposes the underlying causes of poverty. His actual role in the office is coordinating the speakers, writing, editing, among other things that he doesn’t get paid to do. He does receive an AmeriCorps stipend. The offices are cooperative of a few nonprofits that share similar beliefs. “Homelessness kills you,” Damien said about what really motivated him to work at The Homeless Speaker’s Bureau.

 

DP: What are you doing to fight poverty?

 

DH: Before I first became homeless I had no vision of what homelessness was. I don’t believe if you met me when I was a kid I would have known that I would be homeless. How we fight poverty is we share our story with the general public.

 

DP: How many speakers are there?

 

DH: There’s probably about twenty, if we define it as someone who has gone out and spoken with people for us in about the last year. 

 

DP: Are all of the speakers from Baltimore?

 

DH: No. I’m not from Baltimore. Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., has used AmeriCorps VISTA to staff up the speaker’s bureau across the East Coast. He was (has been) one of the major driving forces behind starting the speaker’s bureau in Baltimore and D.C.. The speaker’s bureau in Baltimore has been around since the summer of 2010. In my best estimate. It really took a while for them to build.

 

DP: What is the Speaker’s Bureau working on currently with the active speakers right now?

 

DH: Teaching classes. My service with VISTA ends in a few months. So we are working on hiring someone to help us. We’ve also taught intersession classes.

 

DP: So you are really into fighting for social justice?

 

DH: Yes. Aren’t all homeless organizations into fighting for social justice on some level?

 

Damien and I went on talking for some time that day. He was honest with me about what was happening in his life. How losing his wife because of a drunk driver at an early age initially caused his homelessness. Problems with the law kept him on the street and homeless for almost ten years. Serious health problems not so long ago. Because of bedbugs and the bad attitudes of others, he was kicked out of a program that got him off the street in the first place. Thanks to three of his friends (two of whom are at Word on the Street) he’s moved into a house where they are living to this day. He was in Denver during the riots. 

It seemed like when the rioting in Baltimore was at its worst that was when thoughts crossed my mind about what was really going on. You know, how that really affected poor people, homeless people. Thinking about what some of the longterm problems might be. How hurt the city of Baltimore and other cities just like it could end up being. Denver even had people out in the streets doing destructive things to property to express the way that they were feeling. 

Who was really sounding off in the first place? Homeless? Blacks and Whites? Poor people? Youth? The police? At one time I thought that I might be able to answer some of these questions by asking somebody that was close to the streets in Baltimore. 

Right after I touched down and went a little closer myself I realized it is just not that simple. A lot happened in just a few days. A youth center was opened in the name of Freddie Grey. Baltimore’s police Commissioner Anthony Batts was fired by Mayor Rawlings-Blake, the mayor citing the need for change behind the firing. The next day a woman was charged with dousing the mayor with water in public. From the point I arrived until the time I left, many of the storefronts were lit dimly with no patrons in them. They appeared to be closed to the public. Still the case is not closed. Still questions are going to go unanswered. ■