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Selling the street beat.

Street papers do more than just put the homeless to work - they are a voice for a once unheard community.

Ten years ago, Lee Stringer was collecting and selling cans to support his drug habit, eking out a living on the streets of New York. He scoffed at other homeless people who began selling the Street News, a start-up paper that covered homeless and poverty issues from the street level.

But he tried it out when he realized that New Yorkers' positive responses to homeless newspaper vendors meant a way to earn more money, and he quickly became a top vendor. He volunteered to write for the paper, served as editor for five years and got a book published about some of his experiences on the street. Now he's something of an elder statesman for the street paper movement, which started with the Street News and has grown to some 40 newspapers in the United States and Canada. There are more than 100 around the world.

Aside from the fact that he'd found a way to make a hundred dollars in a couple of hours, said Stringer, "we felt important, there was a whole sense of family - this was ours, with no handouts. It was clean, and it was radical. Suddenly we were selling 250,000 copies of the Street News." More personally for Stringer, he had "caught the writing bug."

Off the streets and off drugs, Stringer gave the keynote speech last July at the fourth annual conference of the North American Street Newspaper Association, or NASNA, in Cleveland. The group formed in 1996 to bring together papers scattered throughout the US and Canada.

NASNA papers come in all shapes and sizes, but many grew from the same beginning - as programs in existing homeless service organizations used primarily to help people improve their lives. The papers rely on low-income or homeless people to sell the paper for about a dollar. Vendors generally pay 20 cents for each paper and keep the profit. Selling papers can help people survive on the streets or get them into more stable situations.

But many of the papers also see themselves as a voice for people ignored by society, covering issues they say are underreported by mainstream media. It's difficult to evaluate their success in achieving this goal, but NASNA editors and writers clearly believe in their mission. While staff often provide some content and news direction, vendors write for most street papers, filling them with news stories, first-person accounts, fiction and poetry.

"The person who's selling the paper sometimes writes the story or answers the phone. It's like putting a face to the communication," said Cindy Barber, national board member of the Independent Media Institute and editor of Northern Ohio Live magazine. With vendors on the streets asking people to buy the papers, she said, "it's not a passive medium, it's interactive."

Aside from the common thread of vendor involvement, however, NASNA papers are a very diverse group. They range from seat-of-the-pants operations with no paid staff and a few thousand circulation to papers like StreetWise in Chicago, with an annual budget of $750,000, a 10-person staff and a monthly circulation of 130,000. While older papers have begun "mentoring" startups, there are no set rules for structuring a street newspaper.

"They're at an early stage in trying to create a model for success," said Barber, who has been an observer of the alternative media scene since she started an underground paper in the late 70s. "It's interesting to watch a new type of media evolving."

"As they deal with the key issue of homelessness, they write about side issues like what's happening with welfare, transportation and urban sprawl," she said. "Even if you get a homeless person employed, they can't always get to the job because it's in the suburbs."

For many, the direct contact between vendor and reader is at least as important as the content of the newspaper. "What blows me away about street newspapers is the impact they can have on a community," said Tim Harris, executive director of Seattle's Real Change and NASNA chair. "We live in an extremely class-stratified society, where a middle class person has no reason to relate to someone who isn't middle class."

Harris says a recent national survey showed that readers come from all walks of life, but college-educated women ages 30 to 50 are the biggest demographic group. About 70 percent of street paper readers are women and 50 percent are homeowners.

"Street newspapers break down class barriers, they allow people to have an exchange that is not based on charity," he said. "It helps the vendor, the vendor knows that people care whether they live or die. For the reader, it's a window into another reality."

Brian Davis, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) and editor of Cleveland's Homeless Grapevine, agrees that vendors provide a vital connection between the streets and readers.

"The great thing is that we know where the stories are,' said Davis. "I could fill up the metro section of [Cleveland's daily] Plain Dealer every week, because there's so many stories. I can rely on my vendors, and I'm going to see them at least once a week" Cleveland's Homeless Grapevine has a circulation of about 7,000 and about 15 active vendors. Recent grants enabled NEOCH to hire both a production manager and an operations manager for the paper, but it's still a small operation.

Even so, says Davis, the Grapevine has earned credibility in the eyes of other local media. "If we didn't have the Grapevine, we would be bargaining just like every other non-profit. Now we say, you can have this story, or it will be in the Grapevine."

The Grapevine's coverage of a 1994 lawsuit brought against the city by the American Civil Liberties Union for "dumping" homeless people in isolated areas was invaluable, says the ACLU's Gino Scarselli.

"Cases like this get attention [from mainstream media] at the beginning and end, but not in between," he said. "The Grapevine was very important in between. ... A reader of the Grapevine had a better sense of the story because of our relationship with the people affected." In fact, the paper had to find a volunteer writer who didn't have a close relationship with the plaintiffs so she could write with a measure of objectivity.

What mattered in the Grapevine's coverage of the dumping case was not just the number of people that read the paper, but that reporters from other media read the paper and picked up the story. Davis and others at the Grapevine ended up being valuable resources for those reporters, and the existence of the paper made them more accessible.

The case was settled for less than $10,000, paid to three homeless plaintiffs. As part of the agreement, Cleveland issued a press statement saying it does not condone "the transportation of homeless persons or panhandlers against their will," and the city promised to ensure that the practice is not used.

In their search for a more "objective" writer, the Grapevine's coverage of the case also illustrates the fine line street papers walk, or don't even try to walk, when it comes to reporting stories that directly affect their vendors and writers.

San Diego's Street Light started precisely because the media missed a story its founders thought was important. Editor Anne Curo describes a protest against police sweeps rousting the city's homeless during the 1996 Republican national convention, when 13 demonstrators were arrested on the same day as the Olympics bombing in Atlanta. "[Other events] took up all the news, there was nothing about the arrests" said Curo. "We decided we needed our own paper."

Street Light has been putting out about 8,000 copies a month with an all-volunteer staff since its first issue came out in February of 1997. Curo and her husband do a lot of the editing and layout, but depend on a core group of writers for much of the content. Recently, the paper has been covering alleged abuses at a local homeless shelter.

The paper doesn't have many resources, she says, and tries to use the skills people have. "It helps if reporters can write, but it isn't necessary." Borrowing a tried-and-true method from daily newspaper history, Street Light reporters often cover stories with a tape recorder, and give the information to another volunteer who writes the story.

One way or another, the goal is to get the news out. "Obviously the public needs education," says Curo. "Many middle class people don't want to buy the paper, because they don't want to know" about issues affecting homeless people. She says the paper targets middle and working class readers, but also tries to get elected officials interested.

Chicago's StreetWise, with 75 to 150 vendors working on a daily basis, also serves as an organizing tool. During recent protests against the shooting deaths of two African Americans by Chicago police, the paper mobilized people to come out for a demonstration. "We spent the whole day making posters in the office, and some 80 vendors came to the demonstration" said Paula Mathieu, director of the paper's Work Empowerment Center.

But papers with a lot of resources, like StreetWise, are able to offer their vendors opportunities beyond work for the publication. StreetWise has a computer learning center, a writers group and a library for its vendors. Mathieu says the paper wants to teach vendors practical literacy skills and self expression.

NASNA has been growing slowly - each year a few new papers start up, and a few close down. Michael Stoops, co-founder of NASNA and organizer for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., says that of the 40 papers in North America, about 10 to 15 are "really strong and doing all the right things."

"Like every minority group, we need our own media to get our message across," he said. "The ones that are doing well are the ones that are able to have a global view about what's going on. I read newspapers all the time, and I don't mind reading about poverty, it's my job. Getting the general public to read about poverty is hard."

Stoops says plans are in the works for a Washington paper affiliated with StreetWise. "Homelessness is rampant and unabated in Washington. We need a voice to educate the general public on poverty issues," he said. "We don't want to institutionalize homelessness and poverty, so whether street papers will be around for a long time is irrelevant. What they are doing right now is important."

Because poverty is a tough sell, veteran writer Stringer says the papers run the risk of losing political power if they only reach people who already agree with them on the issues. "With street newspapers, the public hasn't defined what it wants. You can't serve all the public, you have to define who you want to serve," he said.

When he served as editor of the Street News from 1991 to 1996, Stringer also learned that he had to be careful about how he editorialized. "If I go down, it's not just me, it's all the vendors," he says. "I asked myself whose voice I was speaking with." At the same time, he didn't want to shortchange the homeless by not speaking out on important issues.

For Marsha Rizzo (pictured on cover), the chance for homeless and low-income people to tell their stories is as important as helping them make ends meet. She began selling the Grapevine on Cleveland's streets in April, and soon became a top vendor for the paper. She also wrote a first person story about some of her experiences.

Rizzo describes herself as a "hustler, trying to make it" who spent 18 years in a mental institution and taught herself how to read. After her release at the age of 29, she lived on the streets before her first daughter was born 25 years ago.

"We don't have a voice. We are low-income people, street people," said Rizzo. Although she has training as a computer operator and a welder, she has had a hard time finding work. "I don't have an education or any great background," she said. "It's a big black mark on me." Now her goal and that of other vendors is to "get out there, sell the paper and let people know what it's all about."

"Some people just give money, they don't want to hear about it," she said. "They don't want to face reality, because the paper is about what's really going on." Rizzo is there to try to get those people to read the Grapevine, assertively but politely offering the paper to passersby, asking for a dollar but admitting she gives it away for less if it means getting another person to at least take the paper.

As for the financial benefits, Rizzo doesn't like to talk about how much money she makes selling the paper, saying only that she uses the extra income to pay her utilities. "It can keep you from being homeless - I've had my gas and lights shut off before," she said, adding that she came close to losing her home when her husband died.

Rizzo's reluctance to talk about money probably stems in part from a recent conflict with the city of Cleveland. Vendors' profits came under fire last year when the city began ticketing them for selling the paper without licenses. The ACLU again took up the vendors' cause and got an injunction against the city in U.S. District Court, but the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal.

Even though it won in the courts, the city has exempted Grapevine vendors from paying the $50 annual licensing fee, although editor Davis says the paper lost a lot of vendors and about half of its circulation as a result of the initial conflict.

Kevin O'Neill, the ACLU's lead counsel on the case, says street paper vendors can't afford licensing fees and is worried about the precedent the case may be setting. "There's no meaningful guidance on affordability of fees and licenses for expression," said O'Neill, who now teaches at the Case Western Reserve University law school.

"My greatest concern is that the precedent will stand as a source for other municipal governments to wipe out street papers," he said.

While it's not hard to imagine different city governments trying to charge licensing fees, it's pretty safe to say that if NASNA and its members have a say on the matter, street papers will be around for a while.

"They're somewhat like Thomas Paine," said the IMI's Barber. "They have this sheet, they have something to say, and they pass it out. It needs to be done."

Piet van Lier is a freelance journalist from Cleveland, Ohio.
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Author:van Lier, Piet
Publication:The Quill
Date:Nov 1, 1999
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