Jane Cavie

With his sub-6-foot stature, husky build and thick moustache, John “Mick” Matthews doesn’t look like the superheroes in the comic books he reads. But when he slips on his Street Sense vest he “[becomes] Vendor Man, champion of the homeless, in [my] never-ending battle against poverty, standing heroically against my empty wallet and Smartrip in the negative.”

At least that’s what he wrote in a recently published contribution to the paper entitled “Vendor Man.”

Back outside his metaphorical phone booth, Matthews is an avid writer and comic book buff born and raised in Southeast Washington. One of his earliest childhood memories is of purchasing his first comic at the age of 6.

“The first one I ever bought was ‘The Avengers.’ I’ve been a fan ever since,” recalls Matthews, who carries a DVD of the blockbuster Hollywood hit by the same name everywhere he goes.

It was Matthews’s passion for comic books that initially sparked his love of writing. His first creative project was a script for a comic series he wrote as a 16-year-old. Wanting to convert the aesthetic appeal of graphic art into the more expansive detail of literature, he set out to write the script.

“I was like, ‘I wonder if I can do this,’” he remembers. “So I gave it a shot.”

While his writing is usually fiction, the villains of poverty and homelessness that Matthews has battled in his life are far too real.

His struggle began in 2002 when he lost his job as an office administrator for a siding company. That spring a devastating tornado tore through parts of Maryland, and Matthews’s company was called out to do exterior repair work. Since the governor had called a state of emergency, the company expected to be paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

The FEMA money, however, never materialized. The insurance companies wouldn’t cover the work either. Mick was laid off shortly before the company went out of business.

But that wasn’t the end of Matthew’s troubles. He had come back to the D.C. area in 2000 from Baton Rouge, Louisiana and moved into the family home to help care for his mother who had been diagnosed with cancer. She died in 2004. And he not only lost his mother, but his home.

“The house had to be sold to pay for her debts,” he recalls. “That’s how I ended up on the streets.”

Matthews felt he had nowhere to turn. Spurning the “death traps” he calls the shelters, he hit the street.

“I didn’t know anything about being homeless at all,” says Matthews, who remembers stopping a homeless man on the sidewalk to ask for advice on where to eat.

Matthews had been trying his hand at novel writing but says he lost all of his work when his mother’s home was sold. Once homeless, his writing came to an abrupt stop.

“Writing just wasn’t feasible when I was living on the streets,” he laments.

Matthews became a vendor for Street Sense in 2008, initially to take advantage of what he saw as “legalized panhandling.” But, in the paper, he found not only a financial pickup but also an opportunity to return to writing.

Matthews, now 39, is crashing at a friend’s apartment in a consistent though tenuous arrangement. He claims to be back in the swing of things as he “[goes] through weeks where I do nothing but write.” During these “writing fits,” as he calls them, he cranks out poems, short stories and novellas at a frantic pace.

For Matthews, this return to writing is in some ways a tribute to his deceased mother.

“My mother, before she passed on, was an aspiring novelist. It’s just something I wanted to carry with me.”