(NOTE: I first published this blog a year ago. It didn't get a lot of views then, so I am reposting it today, with some minor updating, as I feel it's an important issue and I'd like it to get wider viewing - not for me, but for the people who are selling these papers out on the streets every day. Thanks for stopping by, whether it's your first time reading , or if you read it last year.)
My husband, Jim, aside from being incredibly talented, and an all-around, stand-up kind of guy, often surprises me with stories about the people he meets in his photographic jaunts around the city. He'll head out on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, favorite camera in hand, taking pictures of whatever and whoever he encounters along the way.
What he brought home one weekend last August introduced me to a world that I hadn't realized existed, and I thought it would be of interest to OS, a community of generous and talented writers.
Did you know that there is a nationwide (indeed worldwide) community of homeless and formerly homeless writers, and that their work is published in over a hundred "Street Newspapers"?
"Street Newspaper" is a term for a newspaper that focuses on the issues surrounding homelessness and poverty and is sold by homeless and formerly homeless individuals on the street as an alternative to panhandling.
In the U.S., street newspapers are currently being published in:
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (One Step Away)
- Denver, Colorado (Denver Dialogue)
- Honolulu, Hawaii (Street Beat)
- Toledo, Ohio (Toledo Streets)
- Los Angeles, California (Community Connection)
- Denver, Colorado (Denver Voice)
- Las Vegas, Nevada (Forgotten Voice)
- Sacramento, California (Homeward Street Journal)
- Santa Monica, California (Making Change)
- Cambridge, Massachusetts (Spare Change News)
- Madison, Wisconsin (Street Pulse)
- Portland, Oregon (Street Roots)
- Washington, DC (Street Sense)
- San Francisco, California (Street Sheet)
- Providence, Rhode Island (Street Sights)
- Columbus, Ohio (Street Speech)
- Dallas, Texas (StreetZine)
- Cincinnati, Ohio (Streetvibes)
- Chicago, Illinois (StreetWise)
- Nashville, Tennessee (The Contributor)
- St. Louis, Missouri (What's Up Magazine)
- Seattle, Washington (Real Change)
The Contributor is the paper that is published every month here in Nashville. Its motto is "Diverse perspectives on homelessness. Genuine opportunities for advancement." It costs $1, and all profits benefit the vendors -- the homeless people who sell them out on the streets.
From The Contributor's website:
"The Contributor is Nashville's street newspaper. We strive to print a monthly paper that accomplishes the following:
- Provides a diversity of perspectives and info on the condition of homelessness while highlighting the contributions of homeless and formerly homeless individuals.
- Provides homeless and formerly homeless vendors with a source of income.
- Creates community between vendors and customers.
All of the vendors selling this paper are currently homeless or have experienced homelessness, and they keep the profit from each paper they sell. They start out with free papers, and, if they like selling, they return and purchase their supply for 25 cents each, sell them on the street for $1 and keep the profit. Vendors have the opportunity to earn additional free papers by pursuing greater involvement in The Contributor by writing stories, photographing events, recruiting other quality vendors, and attending monthly paper release meetings."
According to Tasha French, the newspaper's founder, director, and designer:
"Not all of the content is produced by homeless or formerly homeless individuals. Anyone may submit content to The Contributor. The only rule is that, if you have experienced homelessness, you may submit content on any subject, but if you have not experienced homelessness, the subject of your submission needs to be on homelessness or poverty.
You can tell if a contributor is homeless or formerly homeless under the byline before their article."
The paper currently operates with a volunteer staff and the majority of its printing costs are covered by individual donations. (Individuals or businesses can also purchase ad space, and donations of $30 or more come with a subscription upon request.) Vendors must agree to a basic code of conduct, which is emphasized during their training. Among other things, vendors agree to refrain from panhandling while they are selling the paper, agree to remain free from the influence of alcohol or drugs while selling, and agree that they will stay off of private property and move to another location if someone complains about their presence or activity.
The August 2010 issue of The Contributor is 20 pages long, and looks much like any other professionally-published local newspaper. It contains personal stories from individual homeless writers (as well as interviews of homeless people by homeless people) about how they got to where they are. As you might imagine, there are some common themes (being raised in poverty, lack of parental involvement, mental illness, drug addiction, job loss, displacement by natural disasters, etc.,) but each of the stories is unique and compelling. Accompanying photographs give bleak testament to the toll that homelessness exacts on the faces and bodies of the homeless. (Their spirit, however, remains.)
There are also stories about local agencies and programs that provide assistance with food, shelter, employment, safety and health care. The August 2010 issue features an extended interview on the history of homelessness with Jeffrey Olivet of the Homelessness Resource Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as well as an article discussing attacks on homeless people as hate crimes. The Vulnerable Veterans Program and the new facility for Room in the Inn are also profiled.
There is also a very important story regarding homelessness that has developed in Nashville over the last several months. Many of our homeless lived in a "tent city" on the banks of the Cumberland River. However, after the recent flooding, that site became, and remains, uninhabitable. That issue is discussed in depth here.
I also have to say that I was surprised by the humor and grace displayed in The Contributor's pages. There are original cartoons, poetry, songs, artwork, book and music reviews, satire, puzzles, and even a "Hoboscope", written by the cryptically-named "Mr. Mysterio" (who, by the way, can be followed on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mrmysterio). Here's the entry for my sign, Cancer:
- Recently, the Spitzer Space Telescope picked up what seems to be evidence of a planetary collision about 100 light years from earth. Vaporized and melted rock accompanying an excess of rubble indicate that the two planets struck each other at over 20,000 miles per hour. It's a messy thing when worlds collide, Cancer. And sometimes it's hard to bring the best segments of your life together harmoniously. Just remember, it's always been hard and this isn't the first time worlds have failed to overlap smoothly.
Pretty profound, don't you think?
And there are national and international organizations devoted to this effort, as well. The North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA) held its 2009 conference in Denver, Colorado. It's theme was, not surprisingly, "Navigating the Recession", and workshops addressed subjects like writing grant proposals, engaging volunteers, building the donor base, and how to develop story ideas. Awards are also presented to individual papers and writers, recognizing outstanding achievements for the year. (As of this update, the 2010 conference, held in Chicago, has just ended.)
The International Network of Street Papers is worldwide in scope, while the Street News Service is a content sharing site that each week showcases featured stories from street papers around the globe. Both are on Facebook. These organizations are incredibly savvy about using the internet. Even the homeless have email addresses and know how to use the web to their advantage.
The business model being used by these publications may not be sustainable everywhere. I would think that sales are dependent on having a pretty vibrant downtown area and/or lots of tourist foot traffic, both of which Nashville has. (I was surprised to read that Big News, New York City's street paper, is defunct. Hopefully, they can become operational again soon.) And, certainly, this is but one way to address the issues of poverty and homelessness.
If you live in one of the cities where a street paper is being sold, buy a copy for yourself every month, or a few for your office. If you can, make a donation to the paper itself.
I know that I was humbled and inspired by the work of these writers. Here I thought that blogging -- in the comfort of my own home -- was hard! I can hardly imagine, amid all of the fear, uncertainty and deprivation of being homeless, taking the time to write a story, a poem, or a book review. I think all writers can understand, though. When you tell your story or express yourself through the act of writing, you assert your personhood in the world. You simply cannot be ignored.
Photos by Jim DeMain