Is homelessness an individual choice or the symptom of greater societal ills? Could it be both? For the youth on Denver’s streets, it’s complicated.
By Katelyn Skye Bennett
Charles David Thorpe, who goes by David or “Nobody,” is a 28-year-old hitchhiking busker, playing music on street corners across the United States. Born in Virginia, he spent chunks of his life in North Carolina and Florida and now travels across the country.
If you could hear him play piano, you would understand why busking works out for him. At one point during our interview, David started playing one of the pianos on the 16th Street Mall, and within a matter of moments, eight others gathered around to hear the melody. [Editor’s note: See a video clip of David on the piano at denvervoice.org.]
He never had lessons and has only played on and off for a short time, but the skills he learned by ear garner cash everywhere he goes—everywhere but this part of Colorado.
David plays by need, typically two to three hours at a time, averaging $10 an hour. In Boulder, where he has busked since being in this area, he said he has made next to nothing—never more than $2, even when he played for hours. He attributes it to the street kids who drink and give the other working street kids, like himself, a bad name.
David’s busking career began about a year and a half ago when he worked up the courage to borrow somebody’s guitar and join another musician. They made about $60 after only five or six songs.
In addition to busking, David writes and is talking to publishers across the country as he hitchhikes. “I’ve been through foster care, this and that, just lost my mom, a little mild autistic and stuff, so I’ve always had a dream of hitting it big with the writings and doing music on the side.” The music would be free and the writing would support him, he explained.
David became homeless through a series of bad circumstances revolving around his girlfriend (with whom he has a two-year-old son) and her mother. After David flipped out when the girlfriend moved on, her mother kicked him out and dropped him off in the middle of nowhere. David stayed at the Sheepgate Ministries in Ocala, Florida, for a time. He continued to spiral downward, ended up on the streets, and had to learn new skills like “white-boxing”—the art of asking for leftovers or simply stealing the remains of people’s meals. Eventually he became “home free.”
“There is literally a difference between homeless and home free. Homeless is when it was outside your circumstance,” David said. “You’re always in need. It’s a lack, is kind of the way I describe it overall.”
Home free, he countered, is “when you finally accept that you are who you are. You’re not trying to hide the fact that you’re homeless anymore. You are. You become the street kid for that time,” David explained. He demonstrated the “pep in his step,” walking with a bobbing head full of confidence.
“It’s not illegal to be home free. It’s not necessarily easy to be home free as well,” said Chris Conner, program administrator of Denver’s Road Home, in a later interview. Conner has years of experience working with homeless youth.
For David, living home free is a valid lifestyle as he pursues his dream of publishing his book. Around the time he became home free, he began to busk.
He covers obscure songs by popular artists, using any guitar he can borrow or piano he can find. His favorites are “Come to me now” by Kevin Morby and “Runaway” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The moneymakers are “Riptide” by Vance Joy, “Crawling” by Linkin Park, and anything by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
He said his mashup of Korn’s “Freak on a Leash” and “Falling Away From Me” doesn’t make a lot of cash, but it gets everyone dancing, “almost moshing,” he said, imitating their moves.
“The freedom of expression” is David’s favorite part about busking. The thumbs up, winks, high fives, and enthusiasm of onlookers and other musicians—the appreciation he receives—is another favorite part. But his least favorite part is the judgement incurred by passersby who see his homelessness and not his talent.
“I really only need food, cigarettes, pot,” David said. “Everything else is just the music, people, traveling.”
He has an album ready to record as soon as he can procure a guitar of his own.
Living on the street has its challenges. But the simplicity and freedom of this lifestyle appeal to certain people, including David and fellow street musician Shannon Lee Short.
“Young people experiencing homelessness are making choices in terms of those larger social issues,” Conner said, noting that they operate in the context of what is available to them and what options have been presented to them over the course of their lives.
“It’s important to understand youth homelessness as a very diverse group. There’s many, many layers in youth homelessness in general,” Conner said.
The two buskers on the 16th Street Mall shared their stories of abuse by their families, of being abandoned by partners and estranged from their children. They were left with nothing by others, but they both chose to live on the street after that point—at least for the time being.
During the January 2017 Point in Time survey, 727 homeless youth under 25 were counted and 1,502 people under 35. This correlates to 14.2 and 29.3 percent of the total number of people experiencing homelessness in Denver, respectively. “Given known barriers to reaching the youth population, it is certain that those under 25 years of age counted in the 2017 PIT represent only a portion of the unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness in the region,” the 2017 PIT Report clarifies.
David and Short exemplify several systemic issues at the root of homelessness, such as abusive family situations and the negative side of the foster care system, while demonstrating their agency in their work and lifestyles today. David is choosing to travel as he writes, hoping he will be able to live off the earnings from his book, and it comes at low cost to him. Short is choosing his current lifestyle because he does not feel the pressure to support anybody else and wants to be free to do as he pleases.
In small towns across the country, 27-year-old Short can make $80 to $90 a day.
“Denver is cheap as fuck. People are so indifferent,” he said, gesturing to his plastic cup with only around $1.50 in the middle of the afternoon. He had been playing his mandolin on and off, not caring if he played “annoying” chords since he figured most people were not going to care or pay attention anyway. He said he made about $6-10 daily in Denver, maybe $35 on a Sunday.
The mandolin was missing its bottom pair of strings. Short had $20 and wanted to buy a $55 cajón he saw down the street, but he doubted the discounted box drum would be around by the time he made enough money.
“I hardly even put out a hat because I figure if you’re going to give me money, you’re going to come up and talk with me,” Short said. “I used to put my hat down, and I realize now, all that it is doing is getting my hat dirty.”
Conner described Denver as a crowded location and wondered if this may contribute to the dearth of income from busking here, at least as David and Short described it. Conner emphasized the importance of understanding the trauma homeless youth may have been through, understanding the neurological science of how that may affect their lives, and “finding their strengths and really celebrating that.”
“The bottom line is getting compensation,” Conner said. “Busking is work. It’s a form of work.”
Short also finds it a form of enjoyment. He caught the music bug at age 19 while attending a bluegrass event in Florida. He helped the band tear down at the end and discovered that the bass guitarist played many other instruments. Short began taking lessons from the musician.
“The first time—after about a couple weeks of practicing bass guitar—the first time we went out to play, someone dropped a hundred dollar bill in the hat,” Short said.
Short lived the first two-thirds of his life without busking or playing music, however, and they were tumultuous years. He was taken from his mother and given to the state of New York on the day he was born. He lived in foster care for the first few years of his life and then lived between his transient father and abusive grandmother’s places growing up.
“He would never pay rent, so we were constantly moving,” Short said of his dad, who was in and out of jail. He would often end up at his dad’s friends’ places.
As a teenager, he spent time in a foster care situation, one with foster kids who were thieves, homeless at age 15 when he ran away from his degenerative housing situations, and in a juvenile detention center, among other places. He also lived with his great grandmother, whom he respected, in Florida.
Someone gave Short a mandolin when he was in his early twenties. He practiced for six months on the street for his own pleasure and began busking on occasion. “I play music. I walk up and down the street, and I won’t even look at you—I’ll just play.”
At the time of our interview, Short slept under a tree by a waterfall, which he claimed was “delightful” and beneficial for his bodily and spiritual health. The only problem he faced was people allowing their dogs to use him as a toilet.
“Most people who live on the street, they want two things: they don’t want to carry their shit around, and they want a bath,” he said.
When it comes to busking, Short acknowledges a diverse cast of influencers; everything from his life experiences to the placement of the stars has shaped his music. He wants his songs to be clearer and more meaningful now. He wants his messages to be understood. “I want them to be like, ‘What did he say? Holy crap, is that real? Is that true?’”
David and Short write and sing both for pleasure and for an income, and they value when people listen and compensate them for their artistic work. Their creative works—their music as well as David’s book—are written in order to be heard. ■