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Homeless Voice Frustrations, Dreams as Soup Kitchen Scribes

May 31, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) _ The year he became homeless, C. Donald Mackey became a writer, to record his life on the streets and find out who he had become.

``I started writing to discover how I ended up this way,″ he said.

An outlet for his frustrations, loneliness and dreams came at a soup kitchen, where he took part in a 12-week workshop designed to document stories of the homeless

``At first, I was a little worried about putting the truth down,″ said Arthur Pass, one of more than a dozen soup kitchen regulars at the Church of the Holy Apostles who spent the spring writing about their lives.

But after he starts writing, Pass said, ``I get excited. I’m writing the way I talk. When I’m writing, I’m laughing, I’m feeling it.″

The street scribes celebrated their newfound voices with a public reading at a church Wednesday night, ending a class some would consider a frivolous activity for people struggling to survive.

``Writing is not a frill, really,″ said the Rev. Liz Maxwell of the Church of Holy Apostles, which feeds 1,000 people daily at the soup kitchen. ``They need to be nourished this way as much as they need food.″

One by one, the writers approached a microphone Wednesday and read their emotional, sometimes startling essays to 50 people in the church atrium.

Some looked sheepishly at the floor, barely audible. Others were dramatic, emphasizing certain syllables like they were reading poetry.

The memoirs of the former addicts, panhandlers and mentally ill weren’t just about living on the streets. The topics covered included ``My First Love,″ ``A Letter to a Person from My Past,″ ``My Best Mistake,″ and ``My Face.″

Pass, a homeless man who spent years as a panhandling alcoholic, wrote about how his face changed in the past year:

``This face has challenged cops to fight in a police station, only to have them laugh because they knew that it was a drunken challenge made by some one so under the influence of alcohol the body that supported the face, couldn’t stand up,″ read Pass, wearing a donated tan corduroy blazer and tie.

``The face you would see today is clean-shaven, the hair cut and trimmed. ... It is a clean face.″

Some wrote about daily frustrations, like the time a subway clerk refused to accept 125 pennies that Melvyn Owens had collected for a token. When approached by the police, ``I then showed them my subway fare (Cash Money) and they made up a lie and said ``clerks do not have to count pennies during rush hour,‴ Owens wrote.

``Clerks get paid $10, $12. hr. to count money (Including Pennies).″

The workshop, sponsored by a Reader’s Digest magazine fund to promote community writing, exposed writers who have powerful stories to tell from their suffering, said instructor Alec Wilkinson.

``Experience of life is not in everyone’s possession,″ Wilkinson said. ``These people have an overwhelming authority″ to tell their stories.

Mackey, 52, said he realized in the workshop that he had been writing only about the homeless condition, but hadn’t pondered what got him there, like his troubled marriage.

``I really didn’t know where to put the blame,″ he said. Since beginning the workshops, Mackey moved from a homeless shelter to an apartment in Queens and became a licensed minister.

Pass, 56, said that before the workshop he had not written a word about anything in many, many years. At first, he said, he worried about facing his life. But he found a joy in writing, he said.

``At any time, now,″ he said, ``I have two or three stories inside of me.″