Amplifying the Voice of Homeless People

by Brian Davis

     We are now in our fifth year of publishing the Homeless Grapevine. It is a time of reflections and a time to look ahead. We have experienced threats that nearly put us out of business, and many successes. We have operated without direct public support except the generous dollar our readers contribute for every paper. We have amplified the voice of those who live on the streets, and brought our readers a unique product of news that cannot be found anywhere else.

     The Grapevine was first seen on the streets of Cleveland in the form of a paper reproduction of stories from one of the local shelters. There were problems with endless copies of the paper, and no way to police the paper. In the spring of 1993, the Homeless Grapevine was first published by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless under the direction of Bryan Gillooly with a press run of 2,000 papers. By issue #4, the paper was selling out of the 3,000 papers that were printed.

     We were moving along gaining vendors and expertise at publishing a newspaper until late 1994 when the City of Cleveland decided that our vendors and the Nation of Islam vendors had to have a vending license to sell papers on the sidewalks. This was a distraction and cost us some vendors but did not deter the paper in its mission. In late 1997, the issue of licensing vendors was resolved when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear our appeal. This cost us one-third of our vendors because others were being ticketed. The tickets have stopped, but the city has not formalized a procedure for allowing our vendors to get licenses. Incidentally, a number of other cities in the United States have contemplated implementing a licensing program for street newspapers.

The Grapevine has had many internal problems, but we try to keep those out of the paper. We have had a number of problems with our relationship with the Coalition for the Homeless not the least of which has been the number of Board members who come from a social service provider, and find that their agency is criticized in the paper. This has led to some anxiety by the staff and more than one resignation from the NEOCH Board.

     The vendors meet on a monthly basis and decide on policies that govern the paper. This has caused many tough decisions, and some animosity between the vendors. The vendors have done an amazing job of policing their own. It takes a lot of character and a certain amount of confidence to stand out in the public forum and distribute the paper.

     The paper has seen its share of vendors succeed and obtain housing. We have helped a number of vendors with resumes and job applications who are now members of the work force. We have helped with a couple of our vendors fill out their tax returns and helped with getting messages to our vendors who are usually hard to reach. But if we had done none of this, what we have done successfully is what is at the heart of the Grapevine—giving a voice to homeless people.

     The Grapevine was successful in assisting the Cincinnati street newspaper get started, and are preparing to celebrate 2 years of sales on the streets of Hamilton County. We hope to find avenues into other cities in Ohio and maybe even Detroit. We have also had a leadership role in the creation and direction of the North American Street Newspaper Association. We hope to assist to empower homeless people across the United States to become leaders in their community by creating social change through the proliferation of street newspapers.

     Today, we have 24 vendors and we sell just under 5,000 papers per month. We publish 10 papers a year and deliver local and national news about homelessness. We have a strong group of vendors who take their job seriously, and are courteous and professional while distributing the paper. Our most important asset that we have built over the last five years is our readers and a high level of support from the general public.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published July 1998 Cleveland Ohio