by Jean E. Taddie
Five years ago, the first Homeless Grapevine issue was created in partnership with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. Since then, The Homeless Grapevine has focused on giving a public voice to homeless and formerly homeless citizens. It has also provided a forum for activists, concerned citizens, politicians, and service providers.
Volume 1, which was named The NEW Homeless Grapevine, premiered Spring 1993. The idea of The Grapevine, however, began two years before. The newspaper was first created in 1991 by the residents of Project:HEAT Shelter "Site E," which at the time was located in a temporary classroom building of Cleveland State University. The shelter residents received guidance and production assistance from a Kent State University student who was working on his thesis research. Unfortunately, the fledgling newspaper did not survive.
After about a year-long suspension, The Grapevine re-started production with the financial and technical support of NEOCH. Throughout this five-year, 28-issue partnership, The Homeless Grapevine has focused on homeless involvement and public education. Brian Davis, Editor of The Grapevine and Director of NEOCH, has been with the paper since Issue 7. He explains, "We are a journal about local poverty issues. We provide a unique product that you can’t find anywhere else in town."
Each Grapevine issue focused around a central theme. Early issues were written and produced mainly by homeless and formerly homeless people. They shared their opinions, experiences, and poetry. These issues told the stories of individuals such as homeless children, displaced workers, and shelter residents. As time went on, The Grapevine continued to feature stories, poems and artwork by homeless men, women, and children. The paper also added more stories about important local poverty issues.
"Vendor licensing has been a big issue that has gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court," explains Davis. The story, which was first covered in Grapevine Issue 7 (September/December 1994), revolves around the City of Cleveland’s policy for vendor’s permits. After several Grapevine vendors were ticketed for not having a $50 vendor’s permit, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Cleveland claiming this policy violated the First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech.
The ACLU won in district court on May 3, 1995 (Issue 10). Unfortunately, the U.S. Federal Appeals Court reversed the decision on February 3, 1997 (Issue 20). The ACLU appealed the reversal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but on October 20, 1997, the Court refused without comment to hear the appeal, thereby upholding the City of Cleveland’s licensing policy. The Grapevine reported the Supreme Court’s ruling and the local response in Issue 24 (January, 1998). Even though the City of Cleveland had not officially worked out a policy for Grapevine vendors, some were ticketed by police. Grapevine readers responded enthusiastically to this issue. Davis noted that The Grapevine received cash donations from around 40 people and organizations, a figure he says is four times more than average.
The Grapevine has focused reports on welfare reform since the issue became popular with politicians in 1995. The paper provided in-depth reports about the death of General Assistance in Issue 10 (May/June 1995) by analyzing the GA program and findings from research studies. In addition, all State Senators and Representatives from Northeast Ohio were surveyed about their role in the elimination of GA. A copy of Dennis Kucinich’s speech to the State House of Representatives was also included.
The Adult Emergency Assistance voucher program was uncovered as a bad alternative to GA. Issue 14 (March/April 1996) exposed the program as experimental, haphazard, and arbitrary. The article explained how the program was seriously lacking in planning and fraud controls. One-time grants were awarded without standard criteria. Clients were not told what the eligibility requirements were and they felt the system showed favoritism to people who were liked by the agencies distributing the money. Issue 17 (August/September 1996) reported that in spite of the fact that distributing agencies failed to distribute all of the money, a new pool of money totaling $625,382 was given out in September, 1996, with minimal improvements to the program.
The Homeless Grapevine has reported stories of fraud by agencies trying to make money off homelessness. Issue 13 (January/February 1996) uncovered WeShare, a telemarketing scam that put homeless and low-income people on telephones soliciting more than $1 million a year. The donations were supposed to go for job training and other programs to help homeless people. Instead, roughly 90% of the donations went to administration costs, which included paying workers less than minimum wage. WeShare was investigated by the FBI and Channel 3’s Paul Orlowski. One of the founders has since been jailed for harassment of FBI agents.
Another agency, Project Homeless, was uncovered in Issue 16 (June/July 1996). The agency solicited donations by telephone, mail, and promotional events, and claimed to provide a wide variety of services to alcoholic and destitute clients. The Grapevine investigation found only limited food distribution, no shelter, transportation, or rehabilitation services that were claimed. The organization was investigated further by the Ohio Attorney General. The results of that investigation have been deemed not for public inspection by the Attorney General, which The Grapevine is appealing.
Throughout the past issues, The Grapevine included the perspectives of many homeless and formerly homeless people. Issues 26 (April 1998) and 27 (May/June 1998) focused on shelter life, as told by the people who live it. Shelter residents doled out praise and criticism for different shelters and service providers. The organizations were also provided an opportunity to respond. "We received a big and consistent response from readers who told us they really liked these articles," Davis explains.
Over the past five years, The Grapevine has used a wide variety of writers to express their knowledge and opinions of local poverty issues. Grapevine staff, volunteers, and vendors want to continue and expand this tradition. Stories and input from the homeless community will continue to be emphasized. "In the future, we want to feature more stories from runaway children and kids who are living in shelters," explains Davis. "Ideally, we would like to create a newsletter that covers stories specifically for homeless readers." If The Grapevine could consistently cover the costs of this newsletter, shelters and other sites could distribute it to clients for free.
Number of Vendors trained over 5 years:
Minimum Amount of money made by all of the Grapevine vendors: $250,000
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published July 1998 Cleveland Ohio