Raven Canon: An Indispensable Life

If suffering were an Olympic sport, Raven Canon would be a gold medalist. She was born in 1976 with her intestines outside her body, and came into this world facing surgeries, poverty, problems eating, and eventually, addiction and two decades of on and off homelessness.

She took all of that and turned it into her superpower. When I met Raven, she was still homeless, nearly a year sober, and all about helping others.

Raven’s morning routine was to strike her tent, bundle her gear and other belongings in a tarp, and go do her rounds: tending to her own survival needs, checking up on those worse off than herself and sharing her strength.

She called me last December. Inspired by Real Change, Seattle’s street newspaper, she was launching Colorado Springs’ first street paper. Raven wanted my help and support.

I was awed by her will and audacity, gave her my cell number and said to call any time. She did.

When the first issue of The Springs Echo came out in January, the eight-page tabloid became the newest member of the International Network of Street Papers. Raven suddenly became the most visible homeless advocate in Colorado Springs.

Off the street, staying with a friend and finding her legs as an emerging leader, Raven appeared frequently on the local news, meeting with local leaders, organizing, publishing and channeling a lifetime of hurt.

But the pressures were mounting. Raven ran on a survivor’s cocktail of cortisol and adrenaline. Local events weren’t helping. As Colorado Springs’ newest and most visible homeless advocate, she found herself at the center of a familiar story.

Public begging had just been outlawed. The Mayor, capitalizing on the tourism potential of nearby year-round elite athlete training slopes, was rebranding Colorado Springs as “Olympic City.”

The writing was on the wall for homeless folks. Encampment sweeps were escalating and promised to get more ugly. There was room, the Mayor said, for every homeless person outside to come indoors if they only wanted.

Raven was apoplectic at the lie and estimated that the Colorado Springs shelters were short about 1,000 beds.

The Mayor’s statement, I advised, was straight from the fraudulent municipal compassion playbook. “He will keep saying that,” I said, “They always do. And yes, it will make you crazy. Get used to that.”

We talked about how to organize. How to call out the well-worn narratives of filth and contagion that reduce people to garbage. The rhetoric of human feces, urine, trash and hypodermic needles. The triggers cities routinely use to provoke disgust and justify abandonment.

Raven was rallying the troops, gearing up for the fight of her life.

Then, on March 2nd, I got a text. “Tim I am sorry to bother you but am in a personal crisis. I have to go back to living in a tent. I could desperately use your advice.”

When we spoke, Raven thought she could make her living situation work a little longer, but she might have to walk away from the Echo for a while. I said her crisis needed to come first.

I thought she’d be ok. The elasticity of her capacity for survival seemed boundless. It was not.

Less than two days later, Raven was found dead at 9:30 a.m., wrapped in a blanket beneath an overpass. She was the ninth person to die outside in Colorado Springs over the past year.

In her advocate role, Raven was fond of quoting Catholic philosopher Sir Thomas More. “You have to realize that we are human,” she would say, “and that we all must do more to help.” Then, in the cadences of a well-memorized poem, the archaic lines from More would flow.

“For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.”

Some 500 years after, we’re up to the same tricks. We throw people away, and then blame them for their misery. Raven’s life and death is a challenge for us all to be our better angels.

Tim Harris is executive director of the Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project, which publishes Real Change News.

Image courtesy of Mark Reis.