Speak Up Magazine: Giving A Voice To Charlotte's Homeless

Dec 16, 2014

Tom Costantini is a vendor for Speak Up Magazine. He waits for customers in Uptown.
Credit Sarah Delia

An organization in Charlotte is trying to help the homeless in a different way. Speak Up Magazine is a group that gives people living on the streets not just a job, but a chance to tell their story.


When Matt Shaw founded Speak Up Magazine in 2011, he says there were many challenges—funding, finding an affordable office space, and himself.

“I thought every single need that came through the door, Speak Up had to solve, that’s just not possible," Shaw says. "Our mission is very narrow.”

And that mission is simple—to provide an income opportunity for the homeless and those on the brink of it.

Speak Up produces a monthly publication called a zine—not quite a magazine and not a full on newspaper. It’s printed in black and white and the pages are full of stories written by Charlotte’s homeless—'gritty' is the word Shaw uses to describe it.

One piece titled “All I Wanted Was a Shower” talks about the loss of things that are easily taken for granted like basic hygiene. The author writes: “It’s hard to tell others the truth. It’s hard to say, ‘I am scared. I am alone. My teeth hurt. I feel dirty. I feel unloved. I feel neglected. I am afraid.’"

Writers come to the Speak Up office on Tuesdays for a workshop to edit their stories. And some of those writers become vendors.

Twenty-nine-year-old Tom Costantini is selling Speak Up zines near a Rite-Aid on South Tryon Street in Uptown. He buys the zines for 40 cents a piece and sells them for a dollar each.

Some people clearly assume he’s a panhandler. He doesn’t look homeless—his hair is combed and his outfit is clean. He looks like an average guy. Others pretend he’s invisible, which is hard to watch.

Forty five minutes and more than 60 rejections later, he makes his first sale. His customer is a city worker; he’s using one of those very loud machines that sucks up leaves on the sidewalk. Costantini has a huge smile on his face—even as more people walk right past him.

Costantini says he became homeless about a year ago after he lost his job in Ohio and his belongings were destroyed in a fire. Cash in hand, he hopped from city to city and ended up in Charlotte last spring.

Last week he says he made about $60, which is low. He blames the cold weather and expects sales to pick back up.

On average Matt Shaw, the executive director of Speak Up, says a vendor makes $400 to $500 a month. But it’s not all about the money.

Shaw says Speak Up teaches people how to keep appointments and to be accountable to others and that's not easy when you’re struggling to get by from one day to the next.

There’s also a weekly check in meeting. It’s more than just a roll call.

Shaw says that it’s great to make a sale and earn money, but there’s just as much to learn from the rejection.

"Not everyone wants your product and that’s ok,” he says.

The organization is supported by donations, fundraisers, the purchase of ads and some from sales. Shaw says in the new year, the price of the zine will go up slightly—from $1 to $2. There are a few reasons for that, but mostly to give the vendors a higher profit. Plus, he says their stories that fill the pages are worth so much more.