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Street Sense gives homeless creative tools to build careers and help others

June 2, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
Street Sense publishes the only newspaper by and for the homeless in Washington, D.C. The organization has long trained participants in journalism and writing, and now it's expanding to offer more education in the arts and digital media, like photography and filmmaking, in hopes of giving people a toehold in new creative careers. The NewsHour’s Anne Davenport reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As homelessness has grown in cities across the country, more so-called street papers have cropped up to help tell the story.

We went back to look again at how one newspaper in the nation’s capital is doing 10 years later.

The NewsHour’s Anne Davenport found it is expanding its mission.

WOMAN: It’s my honor and privilege to welcome you this evening to Cinema From the Streets, a cooperation of amazing talent by our colleagues, both housed and unhoused.

ANNE DAVENPORT: When you think of red carpet film premieres, this is not the customary scene. Among this group are developing filmmakers who appear in their own documentary about homelessness. They are or have been homeless in the nation’s capital and are now seeing their work on the big screen.

Three short films were recently produced by Capturing Hope, part of an organization called Street Sense. The team members are eager to get out their story and learn valuable production skills. Street Sense also publishes the only newspaper by and for the homeless in Washington, enabling sellers to make $1.50 for every $2 paper sold. The twice-monthly newspaper also trains participants in journalism and a variety of forms of writing, with 12,000 issues sold each addition.

Now, in a novel approach, the Street Sense organization is expanding more heavily into arts education and digital media in order to help homeless people get a toehold in diverse creative careers. Workshops and apprenticeships are led by volunteer professionals.

In addition to the filmmaking, there’s theater, interactive art, digital photography, where one participant shared a first-person piece documenting his heart condition.

BRIAN CAROME, Executive Director, Street Sense: Our vision is that we’re a full-spectrum media company, that we’re spreading the word about homelessness.

ANNE DAVENPORT: Brian Carome leads Street Sense. This is the paper’s 11th year and it is housed here at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington. Fifty percent of its support comes from individual contributions, 25 percent from newspaper sales, and 15 percent from foundations and corporations.

BRIAN CAROME: We have two missions here.

One is economic opportunities for men and women who are homeless. You can walk in the doors today and be out working today, even if you don’t have a penny in your pocket, even if you just got to of jail, even if you slept outside last night, even if you’re still struggling with serious disabilities. And we’re proud of that work.

And then our second half of our mission is public education. We’re — the content of our media is meant to impact hearts and minds in this community. And the new media that we’re doing, the media beyond the print, beyond the newspaper, is also, we believe, creating avenues for much higher-paying employment than you can experience selling a newspaper on a street corner.

ANNE DAVENPORT: Sasha Williams, who was raped at gunpoint earlier in life, has been homeless off and on for a number years. She has just landed stable housing, enabling her to move out of a shelter with her 2-year-old daughter, Eboni. She is now documenting the conditions there for a future film.

Sasha is the main videographer for the Cinema From the Streets films that debuted. She wants to pursue a career in this craft.

SASHA WILLIAMS, Street Sense Participant: I still have to redo my resume, which I like to do, because it shows the stuff that I have been doing with myself, which is a good look for me to think about the positive stuff.

And it’s really helping me to build up myself, being a good mom, being a woman. They treat me like I’m a genuine colleague. They don’t treat me like I’m just a client.

ANNE DAVENPORT: James Davis is training a new Street Sense vendor on the do’s and don’ts of selling the paper on the street and representing the organization. Davis would know. He had recently joined Street Sense when the NewsHour interviewed him 10 falls ago. He was a homeless engineer, laid off from his security clearance job and in the midst of a divorce and deepening depression.

JAMES DAVIS, Street Sense: It’s just more than a newspaper. It’s more giving back in the sense of helping people.

ANNE DAVENPORT: Davis was also contributing poetry to the paper.

JAMES DAVIS: Hope turns to despair while they gather at a place called some, the men with worn look of life on their faces.

ANNE DAVENPORT: And today? In addition to counseling new vendors, he advocates on behalf of the National Coalition for the Homeless in forums and works at Metro part time. He lives independently, and still writes and sells papers, pocketing an average of $100 a day, with the possibility of a few hundred dollars around the holidays.

JAMES DAVIS: I have a customer base that’s already in place. I believe we put out a good product. And people really look forward to reading the paper. Maybe this was my purpose to go through homelessness, so I can know what I’m talking about, so I can help others.

ANNE DAVENPORT: Currently in Washington, D.C., proper, there are almost 7,300 homeless people in the city and close to 12,000 in the D.C. metro area, though many think that count may be low. Recent statistics show there are 41,000 households active on the wait-list for D.C. housing. More than 20,000 listed themselves as homeless.

Nancy Burnett works with an angel investor organization and runs a financial educators group.

NANCY BURNETT, Alliance of Securities and Financial Educators: If I was given a choice for the same price, let’s say, to have a videographer who has got a lot of experience, a lot of awards, and I would take them at the same time that I would take this population of learners. They have a different eye, they have a different ear. They have — you know, their soul is different.

BRIAN CAROME: One of the things is the powerful transformational effect that self-expression has on our lives, because you have got to first believe in yourself to claw your way out of this deep hole that is homelessness.

ANNE DAVENPORT: So, as James Davis and Sasha Williams and others continue their efforts for a more stable existence, they help each other in this collaborative workshop environment.

In Washington, D.C., I’m Anne Davenport for the PBS NewsHour.

(SINGING)

GWEN IFILL: That’s a nice voice.

Go online to see a link to the recently-released films about homelessness, and to hear from a Street Sense filmmaker and his mentor.

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