Read all about it: street papers flourish across the US

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It took longer than expected. The main profile, on a homeless vet, was supposed to have hit the streets on, well, Veterans Day. The spacing looked strange, the photos (courtesy of a volunteer's boyfriend) were too dark, and, at the very last minute the whole PageMaker file somehow got corrupted. Ted Henson, the intern in charge of editing and layout, clasps his head at the mere recollection.

But it came together, all 16 pages, as these things do. And so this week Washington, D.C., will get its first newspaper written, produced, and distributed by local homeless people. It's called "Street Sense: 'Where the D.C.'s poor and homeless earn and give their two cent' " (or, they hope, "cents" if the typesetting can be fixed in time), and it's due out on the streets this morning.

In the first issue there's a cover story on the homeless community that lives around McPherson Square, a long article on hypothermia, and a half-dozen poems about life on the streets. There is an interview with a crusading congresswoman, reviews of two books on poverty, and a thoughtful piece on the pros and cons of taking day-labor jobs. George Siletti's "how to" column this month gets into how to sleep on the streets ("always put a blanket over your cardboard," he recommends), and the Cook's Corner features a local homeless shelter's recipe for shepherd's pie.

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The objective of Street Sense is twofold: to help homeless people earn income and reenter the working world and to educate the public about homelessness and poverty.

"We want to empower homeless people - build their self-esteem by helping them earn a living and encouraging them to take on more leadership," says Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, which is housing and supporting the Washington paper. "Just the mere contact with the rest of the world gets [homeless] people excited in bigger and brighter things."

Mr. Whitehead, who today sports a blazer, light purple button-down shirt, and a trim and tidy goatee, would know - he was once homeless himself, selling the street paper in Cincinnati.

Like many of the approximately 50 "homeless" papers in the US and the 60 or so more across the globe, the D.C. paper will be sold for $1 by homeless people who then keep most of the profits. Vendors typically get their first 10 papers free, and then pay some small percentage - usually 10 to 30 cents - back to the paper for production costs.

At first they expect that many people will buy the paper out of sympathy, but they plan to produce a quality paper, the staff says, one that will be an important resource on homeless issues and well worth the price.

There are approximately 14,000 homeless people in the Washington area, yet only a dozen people showed up at the orientation meetings to express interest in hawking the paper. Fred Anderson, who coordinates the vendors, says this is typical at the beginning, and he is not worried. "We think there will be a snowball effect."

"Homeless people," explains August Mallory, a Street Sense writer, "are not visionaries. They don't have too many dreams of greatness. But when they get pointed in the right direction they get into it."

Working on a street newspaper forces staffers and vendors to assume responsibility. Vendors must clean up their acts in order to participate.

Another advantage is that they form a tightknit community.

A storied history

Variations on the homeless paper have been around for a century - a newsletter called the "Hobo News" was popular in the early 1900s. But the first of the modern-day street papers was started in 1989 in New York City and called the Street News.

The movement took off at that time, as public policy toward the poor changed and as desktop publishing became more readily available, explains Laura Thompson, an editor at Street Sense. An average of five papers were started every year in the '90s.

Several of those publications have since closed - citing problems ranging from vendor turnover or irresponsibility to garbled, even profane content that turned off potential buyers - but many more have stayed the course. Today there are papers in 47 cities across America.

In 1995, Whitehead, along with Michael Stoops, the coalition's director of community organizing, started the North American Street Newspaper Association, which brings together writers, editors, and vendors to discuss issues of mutual interest. They have also worked to set up a wire service to provide all the papers with national stories on homelessness.

"The newspaper movement," says Mr. Stoops, "is the most progressive grassroots segment of the homeless world."

Inspired by the original New York paper, a group in Britain in 1991 put together "The Big Issue," a weekly street magazine that today has a circulation of 300,000, several regional affiliated papers, and branches in Australia and South Africa. The publication makes a profit, which goes to the Big Issue Foundation, an organization that supports the homeless with alcohol and drug counseling.

The British variation, unlike most other homeless papers, has chosen to move away from coverage of poverty and is mainly known for its exclusive celebrity interviews.

First step toward the future

Chicago's Street Wise has the largest circulation of any of the homeless papers in the US. And its more than 60,000 readers make it the third-largest newspaper of any kind in Chicago. It supports 200 vendors (each must complete a training program) and it has a referral service to provide vendors with drug and alcohol treatment, high school equivalency classes, career counseling, and permanent housing.

"When you start a paper you make a connection with and between homeless people," says Beverly Cheuvront, director of communications at New York's Partnership for the Homeless. "And that is a start when it comes to bringing them in for other social services.

"You really want to make sure every single interaction with the homeless community draws them in for more help," says Ms. Cheuvront. "And it can - you hook people into something new and they discover some of the things that motivated them long ago ... so it can be a first step to a life-changing process."

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