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Newspapers Cover Life on the Street

December 15, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: It’s early morning and 10,000 new copies of Street Sense are going on sale.

The year-old monthly paper is produced by and for the homeless community in Washington, D.C. The all-volunteer effort is compiled at the offices of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington.

There are 40 street papers in the United States and Canada: Real Change in Seattle, Street Wise in Chicago, Street Sheet in San Francisco, Spare Change in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Big News in New York City; 100 such papers are published worldwide.

TERENCE SMITH: Washington, with one of the largest homeless populations in America, did not have a paper until two local journalists, the paper’s co-founders, Ted Henson and Laura Thompson Osuri, found a similar inspiration. They’d been struck by the idea of starting a homeless monthly in Washington after reading such papers in other cities. Ted Henson:

TED HENSON: We were about two blocks away from each other but had to call some guy on the West Coast to find out about each other. So kind of serendipity, yeah.

TERENCE SMITH: Laura Thompson Osuri:

LAURA THOMPSON OSURI: I just thought this was, from my perspective, just a great fit and a great fit for the city as well because there are so many homeless people on the streets panhandling.

And if you can give them a paper instead of, you know, just a cup it would help them a lot better.

TERENCE SMITH: Two of the vendors, James Davis and Jake Ashford, are trying to use the money they make to get a toehold back into the working world. They can make $100 a day, pocketing 70 cents on every paper they sell for a dollar.

JAMES DAVIS: Good morning, Street Sense, can I help you?

TERENCE SMITH: James Davis, who’s been working for Street Sense for seven months, now recruits and trains fellow vendors as well as speaks to colleges and other groups about homelessness.

JAMES DAVIS: It’s more than just a newspaper.

It’s more giving back in a sense of helping people, helping the homeless, and it’s always a joy to see somebody’s face light up when they say, “You know, you helped me. I’ve gotten a job through the paper; I’ve got my self-esteem back; you know, I feel like I’m part of the mainstream again.”

JAMES DAVIS: Help support D.C.’s first newspaper by the homeless.

TERENCE SMITH: After graduating with degrees in electronics technology and computer science, he worked for NASA and British Aerospace Engineering, among other large employers.

But after he was laid off and following some personal problems, he found himself living on the street, sleeping in shelters and with relatives.

JAMES DAVIS: It’s given me a different perspective on the view of homelessness.

You know, I see it from a different standpoint, whereas, when I was working and I was going on travel with my job, I would encounter homeless people on the streets in the big cities that I visited and, you know, I never really gave thought to how that person became homeless. I just never thought that it would happen to me.

TERENCE SMITH: Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless has been working with the paper and on the larger issues of poverty and homelessness for three decades.

He says many Americans could be a few paychecks away from being homeless themselves.

MICHAEL STOOPS: People are not saving money like they used to be, and people are spending all the money that they earn. If you don’t bring home a paycheck, you can be tossed out on the streets.

TERENCE SMITH: With 3.5 million people homeless in America over the course of a year, he says knowledge about poverty and new ideas to combat it are needed.

MICHAEL STOOPS: We see it as really a wonderful way to educate the general public about poverty issues. You pick up The Washington Post and you occasionally see a story about poverty, welfare reform, but you don’t see a lot of stories.

And so a paper like Street Sense is a way to educate the people who live in Washington and also those thousands of tourists that come to the nation’s capital.

TERENCE SMITH: Subjects in the 20-page November issue range from the effects of the election on poverty issues to the movement for affordable housing to an update on a Street Sense scoop: The closing of a homeless shelter to make way for an art museum.

But the paper also features crossword puzzles, photos, book reviews, poetry and features on homeless vendors.

VENDOR: Street Sense. Street Sense.

TERENCE SMITH: Vendors stake out certain areas around town where they know some of the regular customers. Jake Ashford worked for both the Department of Defense and Halliburton, among other jobs.

Now unemployed, he has been on the street, sleeping in a Washington park, for the last three years.

JAKE ASHFORD: Sometimes I go for two to three weeks without having to go as far as wait for no food truck or something. You know, as far as with the paper, it gives me a chance to meet the working class people.

TERENCE SMITH: The co-editors who founded the paper, other professional journalists and community contributors, work alongside homeless writers such as Patricia Henry.

PATRICIA HENRY: The D.C. General Hospital — their cafeteria does not have hot water. That’s where they’re staying, this shelter. And she asked me to pass this along to Street Sense.

TED HENSON: Obviously, it’s depressing, and you know, you don’t want to candy-coat it. You want to tell it how it is, but through offering a more diverse array of content, I think that helps you see the gravity of the situation.

TERENCE SMITH: James Davis writes articles and poetry for the paper. This poem, called Mother Nurture, earned him positive reader reaction.

JAMES DAVIS, reading poem:

Hope turns to despairWhile they gatherAt a place called SOME.The men with worn look of life on their faces.A young mother entersThe line to get foodFor her poverty-imprisonedChildren…

TERENCE SMITH: August Mallory came to town from South Carolina six years ago and lived at three different shelters. The paper helped him regain his financial footing and housing.

AUGUST MALLORY: He says, well, you get your first ten or twenty papers free. You go out, you sell those and when you come back, you can buy more. So I did that quite a few times, and I was able to earn up enough income where I could put it aside and find me a place to live and get me a permanent job.

TERENCE SMITH: He now does seasonal work for Marriott Hotels and works on his own mail order business. But he still sells the paper and writes a column on homeless services in Baltimore and contributes a fictional series.

STAFFER, at a Street Sense meeting: You never know if a person has a dollar or two in their pockets.

TERENCE SMITH: At this meeting the night before a national homeless march in Washington, the Street Sense vendors gathered to talk about their product and how to market it.

STAFFER, at meeting: Target everyone: Black, white, Puerto Rican, Jew, handicapped, children, everybody. Don’t just judge a person.

TERENCE SMITH: On the day of the recent march, vendors gathered their papers and hit the streets.

VENDOR: Street Sense!

TERENCE SMITH: James Davis was able to sell almost 100 papers and promote the Street Sense brand.

PAULO ORDOVEZA: An issue of Street Sense was an important factor in my deciding who to vote for.

JOYCE THOMPSON: You look at a homeless person and you might at first think they’re like a bum, whatever. But these are very educated people and they come from all walks of life.

TERENCE SMITH: Twenty-five dollar yearly subscriptions and donations, supplemented by limited advertising, keep the paper afloat.

The founders say they’d like to see the paper’s coverage bring about change over time.

TED HENSON: We’d like to make sure everybody in Congress and the Senate has a copy and all the local councilmen as well. That’s something I think it takes time to do.

What we’d like to see ultimately is that we have enough PR in the community where people know about us and they know what it’s about. And so, they’re more willing to buy the paper or at least engage in conversation, like I’ve seen that — “that’s a good project” or “no, I hated the article on page three.” At least they converse about it.

TERENCE SMITH: And with 800,000 Americans homeless on any given night this holiday season, the issues Street Sense covers won’t be going away.