The Grapevine Empowers Cleveland’s Homeless

by Jean Taddie

Now in its 17th issue under the direction of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, The Homeless Grapevine has been informing greater Cleveland about homeless issues for more than three years. The Grapevine has grown to a scheduled eight issues for 1996. Distribution for each issue is about 13,000, according to editor Brian Davis. While the newspaper informs the public, it also provides opportunities for homeless people to express themselves and run their own business. “It’s self-help,” explains vendor Angelo Anderson.

The idea of a homeless newspaper in Cleveland came in 1991 from a graduate student working on his thesis project. Fred Maier, a Kent State University graduate student, worked with the men at a temporary homeless shelter to develop the original Homeless Grapevine issues. As a liberal arts student, Maier wanted to develop a work that would make a public statement. The men working with Maier wanted not only to express their opinions but also to earn some money for it. The idea of The Homeless Grapevine was born.

Maier collected articles from the men at the shelter, typed them up, had them photocopied, and then handed them out to vendors who could sell the newspaper for 25 cents. Unfortunately, problems developed with the paper. One problem was with the newspaper itself. It was photocopied, so some people made a bootleg copy of just one page and would sell it for more money. The legitimate vendors were hurt by this because the bootleggers harmed The Grapevine’s credibility.

Another problem was that the shelter where Maier and the group worked at was closed down. This made it more difficult to coordinate the project. Finally, Maier graduated in 1992, and his involvement in the project decreased. Without his leadership or a place to work, printing of The Homeless Grapevine was suspended in 1992. But neither Maier nor the homeless vendors gave up the idea.

Maier and the vendors asked Bryan Gillooly, former Executive Director for NEOCH, if the Coalition for the Homeless would sponsor the paper. Gillooly related, “They both came to me separately. The vendors were like, ‘Bryan, you ought to do something about this—get this paper going.’ [Maier] said basically the same thing. I’ll admit I was reluctant because I knew it wouldn’t pay for the time we had to put into it. . . . but [I] decided, ‘What the heck, we’ll try it.’”

In spring of 1993, issue one of the “new” Homeless Grapevine was on the streets. Gillooly and NEOCH took responsibility for editing and producing the newspaper, but homeless men and women were still responsible for writing most of the articles and for distributing the paper.

One of the early goals of The Grapevine was to give homeless people a voice. “The concept was to help homeless people to express their views of what it’s like to be homeless and to get that word out there. That was not the story being told by the media,” Gillooly explained. Another goal was to create a way for homeless people to make some money for their efforts. Vendors pay 10 cents for their copies of The Grapevine and sell them for one dollar. The profit made on each newspaper belongs to the vendor.

In addition to The Grapevine’s goals, Gillooly explained, “There were a lot of hopes for what could happen if the vendors would work together—the political force.” The first three issues were created almost exclusively by homeless people who expressed their perspective and opinions. Gillooly explained that he started having problems with getting enough material: “Eventually we learned that some of the vendors didn’t want to write or simply couldn’t write.” NEOCH relied more on staff and volunteer time to produce future issues. Lorna Dilley, former Community Relations Coordinator for NEOCH, edited issues three through six. She explained that vendors submitted poems or information, and additional stories came form volunteers who interviewed homeless people. “We would try to have some kind of central theme for the articles.” In return for writing or being interviewed for an article, vendors received free newspapers that they could sell.

Currently, vendors are still encouraged to submit articles and poems. Brian Davis, Grapevine editor since issue seven, explains, “We always give preference to the articles and poems that come in from the homeless, even if they don’t relate to our central theme.” He encourages homeless people to get involved so they can have a voice in the community. “We would like to use this voice for advocacy by and for the homeless community.”

The voice of the homeless can now be heard in Cincinnati as well as Cleveland. Beginning in July, 1995, distribution of The Homeless Grapevine spread to the greater Cincinnati area. The Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless responded to new anti-panhandling laws by giving homeless people a new opportunity to get involved and make some income.

“The newspaper is a business, not a charity,” says Davis. As editor, he works to protect the integrity of the newspaper. He makes sure that The Grapevine content is newsworthy, by focusing on factual reporting as well as commentary and artistic works. Distribution of the paper also has standards. In order to distribute The Grapevine, vendors must register with The Grapevine and agree to follow a code of conduct. Davis emphasizes, “We want vendors to become like business owners.”

Vendors like Angelo Anderson like the opportunity to be their own boss while they’re earning an income. Anderson, who has been a vendor since issue four, states, “I like being my own boss. I can make my own hours and not have someone always telling me what to do. I sell my papers around Cleveland wherever the action is.” On a good week, Anderson says, he can sell as many as 300 newspapers. He explains, “It can be discouraging—getting a lot of rejection. But for every ten ‘no’ responses, there is a ‘yes.’” Because of this money-making opportunity, Anderson is able to pay rent and is no longer homeless.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #17, August-September 1996