Self-Sufficiency Is Measure Of Chicago Newspaper's Success

Circulation of publication by homeless rises to 120,000

IT'S a common city scene: Homeless men and women shuffle off ice-gripped streets into a downtown shelter and slump down on a gritty floor to await handouts.

But this is no usual dole; these needy have come to help themselves. Instead of nabbing a hot meal, they stuff newspapers into their bags and head back into the cold.

These homeless are vendors for the nonprofit newspaper StreetWise. For three years, hundreds of homeless have entered the StreetWise office and come out taking their first steps back toward self-sufficiency.

Shouting pitches like, "$1 keeps us employed, don't be annoyed," the paper's vendors - at times as many as 600 - work the aisles of elevated trains and the curbsides outside restaurants, department stores, and railway stations. They keep 75 cents out of every $1 paper they sell, making on average $491 a month.

StreetWise is one of 109 street newspapers - those sold by the homeless - that have sprung up worldwide in the past decade, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington.

The papers bristle with a hard-nosed, curbside prose, a unique hybrid of social work and community newspapering. Many of their names proclaim their spicy editorial mix of fire, wit, and angst: Mall Ratz (Eugene, Ore.); Asphalt (Hannover, Germany); Street Heat (Atlanta); and Survival News (West Roxbury, Mass.).

The homeless coalition is also seeking funding for a conference on street newspapers in Chicago this year as part of its aim of cultivating such papers in all 50 states by 2000. There are already 48 street newspapers in Canada and the United States.

But StreetWise, a biweekly publication, is widely considered one of the leading street papers. It is the third largest of any newspaper in Chicago, profit or nonprofit. Its reported monthly circulation of 120,000 is three times more than any of its nonprofit counterparts in other cities. StreetWise is considering launching similar newspapers in Detroit and Washington.

The resounding success of StreetWise is unusual. Many such papers have folded because of mismanagement or local opposition. Some have failed to adequately train vendors and defuse concerns that the newspapers are just a cover for panhandling, says Michael Stoops at the homeless coalition.

StreetWise founder Judd Lofchie says good management has been a factor in the paper's success. But he also speculates that being in the Midwest has played a part.

"People [here] are generally more open and giving than people elsewhere," he says.

For vendors, street newspapers offer a way to move from down-and-out despair toward hope and self-reliance. "We give the homeless a way to get off a park bench and have some keys - a place to live and a real chance to change," Mr. Lofchie says.

For readers, the papers open a window to life on the streets - some of the articles are written by the homeless - and help tear down the barriers of mistrust and resentment between haves and have-notes.

"Unlike most newspapers, we have an extra pitch: By buying a newspaper, you are helping someone as well as getting an editorial product," says editor John Ellis. "We build both community and awareness about homelessness," he says.

Recent issues of Streetwise carry news about public housing, holiday bargain shopping, and other topics for low- or no-income readers. A supplement called "Street Scene" features art reviews, cultural-event listings, and both poetry and short stories by homeless people.

Unlike commercial newspapers, StreetWise seeks to cultivate its vendors as well as its readership. It requires each would-be salesperson to complete a 12-session training program. Moreover, it uses a sweeping referral service to shepherd vendors into programs for drug and alcohol treatment, high school equivalency schooling, career counseling, and permanent housing.

"The whole thrust is to help people get into other full-time jobs," says Mr. Ellis, situated in the newspaper's offices at the former Looking Glass Theater.

But StreetWise recently endured a setback. As part of an expansion drive, it teamed up last year with a social group in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates and enlisted homeless people as vendors. But the paper halted sales after a few months because of local opposition. Hoffman Estates Mayor Michael O'Malley says many shopkeepers and residents complained that the vendors were too aggressive.

But StreetWise measures its success not just in new readers but in the turnabouts by its vendors. When William McBain began selling the paper in 1993 after an eight-month prison term, he remained on the street and used much of his income to buy liquor. Then an encounter with an elderly customer buoyed his self-esteem.

The woman gave Mr. McBain 75 cents and dug in her pocketbook for more than a minute for the last quarter. "This lady was so concerned about making sure that I had exactly what I deserved that I decided it was time for me to start doing what was right," said McBain, lugging a thick stack of StreetWise on his hip. He says he now rents a small room, seeks permanent work, and spurns alcohol.

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