The Voice of the IRC

by Brian Clarey

We’re talking about the next issue: content, pacing, the front page. Most of the stories have been filed, and we pass around a dummy to get an idea of how it will look when it hits the streets.

There are some issues with distribution, and Eric Fink, a professor from the Elon University School of Law, speaks on navigating the intersection of the First Amendment and the profit motive.

I give input when I can, but this is not my meeting — I am guest here. Technically I invited myself to this editorial meeting of the Greensboro Voice, the monthly paper put out at the Interactive Resource Center, known colloquially as the homeless day center. I came to the IRC ostensibly to check out the facility and catch up with my friend, Executive Director Liz Seymour. But when I heard the staff of the paper was getting together to discuss the next issue, I figured I might be able to horn in. I love newspapers and the people who make them. Plus, I give great meeting.

Now reporter Majik Pennix is talking about her story on the Second Chance Act, the House bill that would help those convicted of less serious crimes re-enter the workforce. NC Rep. Marcus Brandon spoke about the bill to a group here on Wednesday night, as did Earl Jones, the man Brandon beat to get his seat and who he must once again defeat this year to keep it.

“He called it, ‘Block the Box,’” Pennix says, talking about the section common to job applications that asks whether the applicant has been convicted of a crime. She’s clad primarily in purple — her blouse, her headscarf, her shawl and her shoes. The big ring on her finger sports a purple stone and the chain hanging from her reading glasses is purple. Even the twin teardrop tattoos near the corner of her right eye have a purplish hue.

Another reporter asserts that state law needs to be changed regarding employers’ need to know about prospective employees’ criminal records.

“Well,” Fink says, “it’s not unreasonable for an employer to want to know if a person is a thief.”

This truth is accepted, if somewhat begrudgingly. The Greensboro Voice, now publishing its fourth issue in its second volume under the banner, “Printing News That Doesn’t Fit,” leans heavily towards profiles of the center’s customer base —hundreds of the city’s homeless population who heretofore spent their days fighting the elements, scrapping for sustenance and answering addiction’s siren call.

The main room of the center teems with dozens of them right now, just after lunch. It’s the first stop on the Grand Tour.

“This is a lot of people’s living room,” Seymour tells me. “They’re waiting for laundry to be done, meetings to start. Some of them are just hanging out.”

As always, I am struck by the sheer volume of people in this city who have fallen through the cracks, the range of their ages and appearances, the easy smiles they wear despite living out what is most people’s worst nightmare: the point where they have few material possessions, no place to put them, nowhere to go.

“We’ve created a model that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” she says. “The people who are here to get help are also helping.”

The IRC is not a shelter. There are no beds and it closes at 3 p.m.

every day. But there are showers and clean bathrooms. Washers and dryers, and a closet full of loaner job-interview clothes. Classrooms for adult education, AA, NA and Al-Anon meetings. A computer lab with almost 20 machines and people who know how to use them. One room is set up as a hair salon. Another is in use as an art studio. And the kitchen has been commandeered by Food Not Bombs, which came over from the Hive in Glenwood to cook for anyone who wants on Mondays.

“It’s not exactly the O. Henry Hotel,” Seymour says, “but it kind of is.”

In the newsroom, Majik Pennix talks about the importance of getting the Greensboro Voice into people’s hands.

She’s got a friend in the Melvin Municipal Building, she says, and has been able to put copies of the paper into mailboxes and on desks. She stresses the importance of making this place, these people, known to city employees and elected officials.

“These people don’t have a clue what’s going on in their own city,” she says.

She’s not homeless — not anymore. Her fortunes have changed; now she’s got a house to live in, stories to file for the paper, a magnificent purple wardrobe.

But still she’s back out on the streets, handing out papers, collecting stories for the Greensboro Voice, offering encouragement to any who need to hear it.

“That’s where I need to be,” she says.