Homeless People Are Becoming Writers In Traverse City

Jul 22, 2014

Credit David Cassleman

Some homeless people in Traverse City are writing stories for the first time in their lives.

They’re doing it for a new magazine called “Speak Up Traverse City” -- that launches this week.

Organizers of the magazine have formed a writing workshop, where homeless people are finding their voices as writers.   


Melissa Sprenkle has never done this before.

She’s an English professor at Northwestern Michigan College but this summer she’s volunteering to help lead a special writing workshop. On Friday mornings at Central United Methodist Church, her students are all homeless.

She’s been working with the class for about a month, and she says it’s a challenge to get her students to think of themselves as writers.

“The first few weeks we were getting them comfortable with the idea of telling stories,” Sprenkle says. “And some of them are already comfortable writing it. And today we’re seeing how many more people we can get engaged in the actual writing process.”

Her workshop students come from different backgrounds but they’ve all lived homeless at some point. Most still are homeless. Some are writing for the first time – others are more experienced.

'Rubber Tramps'

Meet Randy Parcher -- one of Sprenkle’s new students.

Randy Parcher stands in front of his art. Two framed pen-and-ink drawings hang on the wall at Central United Methodist Church.
Credit Linda Stephan

He’s a visual artist and also homeless. But he lives a different sort of homeless life as a self-described “rubber tramp.”

“A rubber tramp is a person who has rubber under him every night or even during the day,” Parcher says. “We own a vehicle but we live out of it. So it’s a rubber tramp.”

He says most people have probably never heard the term before, which has led him to write a story for the magazine about rubber tramps.

That’s the kind of story that Melissa Sprenkle wants her students to tell: the ones that highlight how homeless people are unique. She’s pushing them to realize they are writers with powerful experiences to share.

"It is really important for our potential readers to understand that homelessness is a diverse, broad set of experiences."

Sprenkle says homeless people can teach the community a lot.

“It’s really important for our potential readers to understand that homelessness is a diverse, broad set of experiences,” Sprenkle says. “And a lot of different types of individuals experience it and experience it in different ways.”

Randy Parcher doesn’t live on the street under newspapers.

He doesn’t live out in a tent near K-Mart – although at least one writer at the writing workshop does. He lives in a car because he says he can’t afford a permanent home.

Parcher came to the workshop with some prior experience as a storyteller. He wrote a spoken-word piece describing the wide-variety of homeless people he’s encountered in his life.

New Storytellers

Parcher comes to the workshop with his partner and fellow rubber-tramper -- Laurie Koelsch.

This is the first time she’s had the chance to write down her stories. Koelsch is working on a piece about the first time she ever saw a homeless person, while growing up in Traverse City.

“When I was out of high school and going to work I was with my parents I was on my way home,” Koelsch says. “And there was this lady on the sidewalk and she had this long fur coat on and she was walking to the garbage can, looking for something to eat evidently.”

“And my father had always seen her on the street, and I learned that she didn’t have a place to live.”

Koelsch says this experience stuck with her.

“It just really got my curiosity up to how they live and where they stay,” she says. “I just couldn’t imagine a person living like that.”

Koelsch says her main goal as a writer is to convince readers in the area that homeless people aren’t so different from everybody else.

She says that’s especially important with all the talk around town about opening a new homeless shelter.

"We are just as friendly as anybody else."

“I get so tired of hearing how the homeless are always the bad people,” Koelsch says. “And we’re not. We’re just as friendly as anybody else.”

First Edition

Credit David Cassleman

Melissa Sprenkle wants to make confident writers out of people like Laurie Koelsch.

But Sprenkle says she’s anxious about the whole writing project. She thinks these stories have the potential to make a big impact.  

“I want it to go well,” Sprenkle says. “But I don’t even know what well looks like. So it’s really exciting to see it emerge and to see them writing more. I always love to see that when students move from not knowing what to write -- to covering a page.”

Many of these homeless writers will have their first chance at seeing their stories in print this week when the first edition of “Speak Up” magazine comes out.

Organizers of the magazine are throwing a launch party on Wednesday at Kirkbride Hall in Building 50.