Street Newspapers Unite in Poor People's Movement

by Brian Davis

        Vendors, editors and volunteers of street newspapers from around the United States and Canada gathered in Seattle in mid September to officially form an organization called the North American Street Newspaper Association. While the new organization's stated goal is to foster the creation of new papers and support existing street newspapers, there was a great divide among the member papers over ideology. It is too soon to tell whether even a loose federation of street newspapers can survive or if it will follow the fractured and aborted paths of the labor movement, the anti-war movement, and environmental movement.

        Staff and vendors came from Victoria, British Columbia; San Antonio, Texas; Portland, Oregon; and Boston, Massachusetts. There were representatives from large papers such as Chicago's huge StreetWise and the bigger Big Issue in London to small papers like Urbana's Homeless Whispers, and the one women show from Eugene, Oregon, the Houseless Journal. Indio, the Editor of North America's first street newspaper, Street News, was able to attend this year, and was presented with a special award recognizing the importance of Street News. Four members of the Homeless Grapevine in Cleveland were able to attend thanks to the generosity of the National Coalition for the Homeless, The Coalition for Housing and Homelessness in Ohio, the Robert Kohn Family and Stanley Meisel Family Fund.

        The conference featured one day of workshops to provide technical assistance to the journalists and staffs of the street newspapers. Then those gathered painstakingly gave birth to this new federation known as NASNA. At the 1996 conference in Chicago, those in attendance had agreed to the concept of a Street Newspaper Association. At this year's conference the group actually sat down to hammer out a Mission Statement and some goals and objectives (see insert)

        Michael Stoops, Outreach Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless and organizer of the conference, said, "I think it's working well. People are getting to know each other and trust each other better. Out of this weekend in Seattle will come a stronger, not a perfect, but a stronger street newspaper movement." He saw a promising future for the organization.

        "I see some power struggles here," commented Bridget Reilly of Houseless Journal, who went on, "It is important that women speak up because I see some male/female type of power struggles potentially." She did say, "I feel good about it over all. There is a lot of good energy, good contacts.I hope we are headed in the right direction."

        Harold Chapman, vendor of the Denver Voice, said, "We have to figure out how to utillize what we learned and what will work in Denver."

        Linda Larson, Editor of Spare Change in Boston, said that what struck her were the horror stories about assaults on the rights of homeless people from around the U.S. and Canada. "In Cambridge and Boston we are sheltered from this kind of abuse. When I hear these lists of abuses and new policies and crimilization of homelessness, I am galvanized," she said. She added that we are all subject to this abuse, and vowed to devote more attention to covering these issues.

        One semi-impartial observer, Norma Green, an alternative press Professor at Columbia College in Chicago and volunteer at SteetWise, said, "I always think birth is a painful but rewarding process. So I was glad to see that despite what seemed to be all the distance.and even though there seemed to be a lot of acrimony, I think that ultimately people see that they have common goals and they're coming to some understanding."

        The distance and acrimony comes from the two separate visions of the purpose for a street paper. One is the business orientated, job creation type newspaper and the other is the grass roots organizing project that brings homeless people together to give them a voice in the media.

        Stoopes said, "The majority of the street newspapers here are similar to the Homeless Grapevine in Cleveland. They are grass roots, they involve homeless people. There are a few papers that have more of a corporate, non-profit, charity outlook. These are in the minority. I think they need to be part of this movement.There is attention. There has been debate, and there have been a few people who walked out in anger."

        Tim Harris, Director of Real Change in Seattle and host of this year's conference, said, "The central conflict in the street paper movement is whether they should be more entrepreneurial and business orientated and focus on job creation. Different people feel strongly about that and that comes out in the debates. I think that is all very helpful and the movement is going to grow as a result of this conference." Harris was voted to be President of NASNA over the next year.

        From the grass roots side, Paul Bowden, of San Francisco's Street Sheet, felt that this all could be expected. Bowden, who has been a part of organizing poor people for years, is the Director of the San Francisco Coalition for the Homeless and publisher of Street Sheet. The paper is distributed free to vendors, accepts no ads, and is written and controlled by homeless and formerly homeless. Bowden characterizes Street Sheet as a "political rag."

        Bowden said, "I think the steering committee (should have) put out more of the decisions that were made in advance and why (they made them.) so we didn't repeat the base over again.instead we are going back to people's assumptions about power and who's making decisions and getting really freaked out over that shit. It is natural, its human nature especially at the beginning."

        From the business orientated side, Brandon Stiller, Editor of StreetWise in Chicago, said that this conflict occurs within NASNA as well as within each of the newspapers. StreetWise has almost 400 vendors and sells 140,000 papers a month.

        StreetWise is currently buying a building to support vendor development, and have a week long training for vendors. They attempt to appeal to the masses by reserving space for movie reviews, an entertainment section, and an advice and sports column. They attempt to appeal to a broad constituency, which they hope translates into a well paying job for the thousands of homeless people in Chicago. Stiller characterized his paper by saying, "Our position has always been that in order to serve the largest number of vendors possible, in order to create the best possible product, we need grants, donations, and advertising."

        Stiller said, "In the end, the debates remain, not only nationally, but within StreetWise itself. What is comforting, however, is that in this case all the debaters have the same goal in mind-it is just how to get there that is controversial. And, with so much discussion and debate, the right road will eventually become clear."

         Nancy Parker of Victoria, British Columbia's Red Zone said, "I don't know that it isn't healthy that we have different points of view. It hasn't come to blows so I don't think it's anything unusual." Parker was voted Vice President of NASNA. She also noted that she was so full of information that it was going to take a few weeks to process it all.

         Spare Change office manager, Fred Ellis, struck a neutral stance on the controversy claiming that the differing missions was a myth. "The base direction, which is applicable to all papers, is exactly the same. The means by which each of us gets there varies like night or day." He said the conference reinforces his faith in what he was doing.

         Street News Editor, Indio, had similar thoughts. "The struggle goes on. We are here because we are all going in the same direction, and I am proud to be a part of it."

         With all the controversy and debate a great deal of information was exchanged, and Parker of Red Zone said, "I love it. (Our street newspaper) is not an isolated thing. It does seem that anybody in the anti-poverty movement is the odd one out, but now I realize this a movement across Canada and across the United States."

         Harris of Real Change also noted that this is a larger movement. "I think the street newspaper movement is just simply a part of a poor people's movement. Bringing in new people, and involving new people, and giving poor folks a voice. I think street newspapers are just tools for that sort of thing to come around in the last decade. So I want to see it grow and I hope this conference is a step towards that."

        The poor people's movement as well as the street newspaper movement most likely will grow, but as Walt Crowley, the keynote speaker for the conference, explained, it must avoid the philosophical impasses that caused the "underground" or anti-war newspapers to fizzle in the early 1970s.

        It was decided to hold the 1998 annual meeting of NASNA in Montreal, Canada and the 1999 conference in Cleveland. Also resolved was the construction of an 11 person executive committee of which Angelo Anderson of the Grapevine was voted to be a part.


Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Issue 23 October 1997