by Jean Taddie
Recently, I was down by the waterfront when a woman approached and asked me to buy one of her street newspapers for a dollar. “Sure,” I said, and she made the sale. When I walked away, I looked over my paper—but it wasn’t The Homeless Grapevine. In fact, what I had just bought was The Street Sheet, which is sold along Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
Cleveland and San Francisco are not the only cities with street newspapers that support homeless issues. There are more than 50 homeless newspapers in the United States, Canada, and Europe. More than 35 of these can be found in the United States. Many papers are in large cities like New York, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Chicago, Milwaukee, Denver, Phoenix, Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Since homelessness is not limited to big cities, however, some smaller communities such as Elkton (MD), Jamaica Plain (NY), Ann Arbor (MI), Spring Lake Park (MN), Bloomington (IN), Eugene (OR), and Garden Grove (CA) also support a homeless newspaper.
Homeless newspapers are trying to network among each other. Late in 1994, the National Coalition for the Homeless sponsored a survey of homeless newspapers. Twenty newspapers responded to the survey, which gathered information about staffing, financial support, distribution, circulation patterns, and editorial content. The survey showed that there was a lot of diversity with the homeless street newspaper movement. It also uncovered an interest by the newspapers to learn more from and about each other.
Members of the street newspapers got to meet each other face-to-face at the August, 1996 convention in Chicago (Grapevine issue 17, page 1). It was decided at this convention that the street newspapers would create their own organization—the North American Street Newspaper Association—which will meet annually. In addition, street newspapers were encouraged to support the Homeless News Service (HNS), which is a free archive service for homeless newspapers available through the internet (http://csf.colorado.edu/homeless).
As members of the newspapers get to know more about how other papers work, some similarities and differences are uncovered. For example, Brian Davis, director of NEOCH, states, “Each paper must make decisions about leadership and the role of the vendors.” The structure of leadership differs across different newspapers. For example, some news organizations (such as Cleveland’s Grapevine, Atlanta’s Street Heat, and San Francisco’s Street Sheet) are supported by a coalition for homeless. Other newspapers (New York’s Street News, Boston’s Spare Change, and Milwaukee’s Repairers of the Breach) are self-run non-profit organizations.
Whether the newspaper is its own organization or sponsored by another, each still must decide who makes the editorial decisions. Some newspapers are planned by an editor who may either be a professional (Street Sheet), a concerned activist (Repairers of the Breach), or a formerly homeless person (Street News). Other newspapers (Street Heat, Spare Change, and Seattle’s Real Change) are planned by editorial committees.
Often, these committees try to recruit homeless and low-income people to help make decisions about the newspaper’s content.
Different papers use different methods of circulation. Some newspapers are like the Grapevine in that they sell papers to homeless vendors who resell them for a profit. Other newspapers give homeless vendors the paper for free. San Francisco’s Street Sheet, for example, is provided free to homeless vendors for one month, but then vendors must wait three more months until they can get more. Some newspapers are like Milwaukee’s Repairers of the Breach in that they do not use vendors to distribute their papers at all.
The number of newspapers printed per issue varied widely, according to the National Coalition’s survey. The fewest copies printed was 400, while the most copies printed was more than 120,000. This large number of copies was reported by Chicago’s StreetWise, which uses a professional, paid staff to produce the paper and homeless vendors to distribute it. Of the survey respondents (not counting Chicago), the average number of copies printed per issue was about 9,000. The Grapevine usually prints about 11,000 copies or more per issue.
Since homeless people are often considered by the public to be an undesirable presence in downtown areas, some homeless newspapers face a variety of pressures from their city officials. In Cleveland, Homeless Grapevine vendors were being ticketed for vending without a license. Fortunately, the ACLU stepped in on the Grapevine’s behalf and filed a lawsuit against the city. The lawsuit explained that the city was restricting the constitutional right of freedom of speech by imposing licensing requirements on newspapers. The judge agreed and forced the city to stop ticketing the vendors. The judgment has set a precedent for other cities where licensing continues to be a problem, but the city of Cleveland has appealed the decision.
New laws and restrictions for homeless people have had an impact on street newspapers. Lee Stringer, editor of New York’s Street News, explained that his paper has seen a sharp decline circulation ever since homeless people were banned from New York City’s subway system. San Francisco’s new police administration has put pressure on the homeless population as well. In Cincinnati, panhandling was criminalized and advocates there looked for a way to help the homeless population. The Coalition in Cincinnati developed a partnership with Cleveland’s Grapevine so homeless vendors could make money selling the paper in Cincinnati.
Each homeless newspaper has its own organization and its own problems. But as members of the papers are networking more and more, common issues are also uncovered. The North American Street Newspaper Association is just one way that newspapers can work together to develop a cohesive homeless street newspaper movement.
Editor’s Note: In January 1997, Washington DC will see the first edition of a street newspaper for sale on Pennsylvania Avenue and all around Washington. The National Coalition for the Homeless, the VISTA program, and the National Law Center on Homelessness will collaborate on a street newspaper. Rumor has it that Newt Gingrich is going to be a lead vendor of the newspaper for a little “soft money” for 1998.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #18, November-December 1996