INSP News: The International Network of Street Papers mourns the loss of Raven Canon, Springs Echo founder
Rising street paper star found dead on U.S. street
By Laura Kelly
On March 4 at 9.30am, a homeless woman was found unresponsive on the streets of Colorado Springs, wrapped against the -1°C / 29°F cold in a blanket. Raven Canon was at least the ninth person to die on the city’s streets this winter, activists say. She was also a rising star in her community, an effective community organizer and activist, and the editor-in-chief of the world’s newest street paper.
Days after her body was found under a pavilion near Highway 115 on the south side of Colorado Springs, the cause of Raven’s death is not obvious—but the impact she had could not be clearer. Her hometown has reacted with shock and sorrow, as have her international street paper colleagues.
Against the odds
Raven started her street paper journey as a vendor for Real Change in Seattle.
Though selling didn’t work out for her, the concept had an impact. When she found herself homeless in Colorado Springs she decided that what the city needed was a street paper—and she set out to make that a reality. Impressed by her vision and drive, Real Change founder and International Network of Street Papers, (which Megaphone is a part of), board member Tim Harris acted as an adviser. He put her in touch with INSP in December last year.
“I am in a mad dash to come up with the last couple of hundred dollars we need to go to press,” she told me in her first email. “I am very honoured to be able to do all that I am currently working on.”
It wasn’t until I spoke to her on the phone for the first time that I realized she was sleeping in a tent or in all-night cafes. “It’s a battle,” she admitted at the time. “I’m emotionally exhausted.”
Raven spent most of her life fighting to stay off the street. She was born with gastroschisis (a birth defect in which the baby is born with their intestines outside of its body), and fought stomach problems her whole life. She worked in bars for years, never far from the breadline. When she quit drinking due to addiction problems, she lost her profession and her income source. Homelessness caught up with her.
“Why am I on the streets? I could say that it was one event, which was the officer who sexually assaulted me and I had to file charges” she told Colorado Springs advocacy group Coalition for Compassion and Action (CCA) last year. “I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I ended up in Pueblo [in Colorado], which is where I’m from. Pueblo has no resources, so I came to the nearest larger city that had services, which is why I am in Colorado Springs.
“But when I look back, if I’m honest, I’ve been struggling to stay off the streets for 20 years. Eventually it happened that I could no longer keep my head above water.”
Raven’s friend Linda Laba says that the odds were always stacked against her, “But she rose above the odds and the statistics.”
Linda calls herself a sister to Raven.
They met years ago, when Raven was living on the U.S. island territory of Guam, in Micronesia. Back then, Raven was known by her given name of Crystal Tippens. (She changed her name recently to Raven to symbolise her new life.)
‘Such a jewel’
“I met her through my involvement in a 12-step programme,” Linda says, on the phone from Guam, as her chickens crow outside. “We got very close because she’s just such an extraordinary person.”
Formerly homeless and fighting her own battles with addiction, Linda was a mentor to Raven. They’d just celebrated Raven reaching her one-year anniversary of sobriety. But it was far from a one-way relationship. “She probably thinks I was helping her, but of course, in reality she was a big help to me,” Linda explains— one of many to repeat the sentiment. “I saw in her such a jewel—and she proved me right. It’s obvious in the last year, with everything she accomplished, that she really was a great person.”
Linda works as a substance abuse counsellor at the Oasis Empowerment Centre in Guam, so she has helped plenty of people facing the same demons as Raven. What was it that made their relationship special? “I loved her heart. Her spirit. Crystal had the kind of heart where she wouldn’t let anyone suffer—she wouldn’t let them die alone. She marched to her own beat. And I loved that.”
Colorado Springs activist Trygve Bundgaard first met Raven last year through her campaigning on behalf of the homeless community in which she lived.
The board chair at Blackbird Outreach and a director at CCA, he was organising a sit-in protest against the city’s proposed sit-lie ordinance—a draconian bylaw designed to force homeless people out of public spaces.
“She reached out to me on the phone and had some great ideas about ways to poke the city a little bit, and ways to be provocative.
We instantly connected,” says Trygve. “She’s a very striking person, especially when you realize that she’s out on the streets.” Trygve, like Linda, is having problems with moving into the past tense when talking about Raven.
“Until the very end, she was the most fiercely articulate and intelligent person,” he continues. “She defied everyone’s expectations of what someone surviving outside should look and sound like.”
Though still struggling with housing, Raven’s trademark grit saw her get the first edition of The Springs Echo out in January.
She had secured the last couple of hundred dollars she needed from a donor. Although, in fact, thanks to administrative delays, fellow street paper Denver Voice ended up loaning her money so she could take delivery of the first papers. “I must say I am impressed with… her drive and determination,” Denver Voice editor Sarah Harvey told INSP.
It was clear, Linda and Trygve agree, that Raven was turning her life around. After months of hard work, she’d achieved her ambition of starting the Springs Echo; she’d come to grips with her alcohol problems and some legal issues; and since the start of 2017 she’d found a room to stay in with friends.
Her advocacy work was starting to cut through too. According to Colorado Springs city councillor William Murray, “She was a rising star in the community.”
On Thursday March 2, she messaged with troubling news. She felt that she could no longer stay in her home and so was back on the streets. “I feel like a failure,” she said. “I am just so, so tired… and afraid I might die outside.”
Driven by love
Raven’s friends are still trying to work out exactly what happened between Thursday and Saturday morning, when her fear came true. She’d contacted Linda, Trygve, Tim Harris and Councilman Murray on Thursday too, in obvious distress. Her final, heartbreaking post to Facebook that day read: “All I ever really wanted was a home no one would take away from me. A HOME.”
“That’s the core root of what I’m struggling with so much right now,” Trygve says. “In my last conversation with her on Thursday, I could tell she was down. I could hear the hopelessness in her voice but I could not get out of her why it was different. As far as I could see, everything was in place for an amazing new chapter to her life.”
The what-ifs will continue for everyone who knew Raven. Everyone she contacted last week told her the same things – you inspire us, you are a success, we’re there for you. Somehow, it didn’t break through.
“I think probably the saddest thing, in hindsight, is that she kept telling me that she felt so alone,” says Trygve. “Her death has clearly shown how not-alone she was.”
Tim Harris has fought for homeless communities in the U.S. for more than two decades, but he says that Raven will stay with him. “Raven didn't know ‘too much to give’,” he says. “She was driven by love, and offered up her own broken heart every day, taking care of others and fighting for basic human dignity. That’s an inspiration I’ll carry with me the rest of my life.”
Raven once told me that she was “so very blessed” to be part of the street paper movement. In the days since her death, the best email I’ve had was from Steve Saint-Thomas, a career journalist who had advised her on the paper. The subject line was: “The Springs Echo lives on!” There could be no better tribute, or legacy.