Voice for the Homeless

Newspaper Gives Outlet, Opportunity to D.C.’s Displaced

Posted November 21, 2003 at 3:01pm

As Fred Anderson stood on the busy corner of 19th and M streets Northwest at the beginning of the lunch hour rush last Wednesday, an old memory suddenly flashed into his mind.

“You know, when I was homeless I used to shine shoes for people right over there,” he said, pointing toward a low concrete wall.

The big man with an even bigger smile paused in thought as the memory of the four months he spent living on the streets of D.C. came rushing back.

And, just as quickly, Anderson turned back to the job at hand.

“Engage the customer,” he called out with all the enthusiasm of a high school basketball coach. “This is a good spot, post up here.”

Anderson is the vendor coordinator of Washington’s newest newspaper, Street Sense, a street publication designed to give a voice to the city’s 18,000-plus homeless people. Today he is working with two vendors, both formerly incarcerated and neither with a place to call home, to sell the papers to the noontime crowds near Dupont Circle.

Put together by a group of volunteers and created through the National Coalition for the Homeless, the newspaper hit the streets of Washington last week distributed by homeless and formerly homeless vendors. The launch date coincided with D.C.’s hunger and homeless awareness week.

“The main goals of the paper are to spread awareness of homelessness and poverty issues in the community and to empower those people [selling the paper] by providing them with an income,” said Ted Henson, a co-editor and one of the founders of the paper. “It’s a small income initially, but we really hope that there’ll be a good community response.”

The paper includes stories by community advocates, professional writers who volunteered their time and submissions from members of Washington’s homeless population. In the November issue, stories range from homeless legislation in Congress and an interview with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) to poetry and a guide on how to sleep on the streets by writers who know that skill all too well.

Henson and co-editor Laura Thompson, who works as a writer for American Banker newspaper, published an “ambitious” 10,000-copy first addition. The cost of the first run was covered by the National Coalition for the Homeless and private donations.

The paper sells for $1; vendors keep 70 percent of their earnings, and 30 percent goes toward production costs for future issues.

For Al Jones, a vendor whose first day was last Wednesday, the money he earns from selling Street Sense will help him as he tries to find a more permanent job and get off the streets.

“You need to have money in order to get a job and do the job search,” said Jones, a former criminal offender who has been on the streets for four months. “This allows me to be more productive. You can’t always work a day labor position.”

Jones was recruited by Anderson, who has met many of the city’s homeless through his time on the streets and his work as a security guard at Miriam’s Kitchen, a food and social services shelter in Foggy Bottom. Anderson said the street paper program helps reintroduce D.C.’s homeless — whose population has reached its highest number since 1996 — back into a society where the first instinct of passersby is to look the other way.

“A lot of people appreciate that someone is homeless and they’re out here working,” he said, as he greeted another homeless man riding by on a bicycle. “We’re trying to work homeless people back into the community.”

Street papers are nothing new in the United States, or even in Washington. According to Thompson, street papers have been around since the 1970s and began to flourish in the 1990s due to the availability of desktop publishing programs and cheaper production costs. Street papers are now available in 47 cities in North America and dozens of cities throughout the rest of the world, Thompson wrote in the inaugural issue.

“There’s a lot of good papers that have a good reputation and a good circulation,” she said, citing Street Wise in Chicago — a weekly street paper with a circulation of 18,000 — as the most successful. In 1999 Street Wise tried to establish a D.C. edition, but the paper was discontinued after six issues because, as Thompson writes, with its management in Chicago, few stories focused on Washington and it could not stir up enough interest.

And while Street Sense had 15 vendors by the end of last week, Henson said enthusiasm is growing. He said his staff continues to try to bring in more vendors through word of mouth and meeting people on the streets.

Keith Ashe, another of Anderson’s recruits, had already sold 160 papers in two days of vending and is so far Street Sense’s top vendor.

Holding the paper in front of him and carrying an engaging smile, he went through 20 papers in his 15-minute walk from the Street Sense headquarters to Dupont Circle. Another former convict who has been homeless for a month, Ashe said he can make $45 a day selling Street Sense. The native Washingtonian said he too plans to continue selling the papers until he can find a steady job. He hopes to maybe one day work in nursing because he likes working with people.

But Ashe said he appreciates the work now because “they’re giving me a job instead of me just asking you for money.”

For more information and volunteer opportunities with Street Sense, call (202) 737-6444.