Writer Reflects Back on Eye-Opening Articles

By Thomas Hayes

   My first contact with The Homeless Grapevine newspaper was of secondary, even tertiary importance to what I was doing at the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) at the time.

   In 1995, I was an Americorps*VISTA (Volunteers in Service to American) sponsored by the Corporation for National Service, and was being transferred from a backwater outpost in Chillicothe, OH, to Cleveland.

   The transition, I knew, would be startling—from Appalachian poverty to inner city poverty: the conditions, surroundings, and finally, the actual people—one must admit to having different images of a poor rural Southern Ohioan and a poor urban Northern Ohioan. However, one thing remained constant, at least: poverty. Poverty is poverty wherever you go, and the intangible, soulful feel of it—and the facial expressions of those squashed under its weight-are uniquely alike.

   Being one who likes to be prepared for a situation, I took time in reading various materials on homelessness—an oversized photographic work from Los Angeles, which sought to capture the homeless in some Diane Arbusian style; as well, I had some essays by Andrew Cuomo, then deeply immersed in New York City’s homelessness problems. But strangely, the objective photographic viewpoints and the raw statistics shoveled at me by Cuomo gave me, as a reader, no real sense of any personal element—that is, what it feels like to be homeless.

   In Chillicothe, I had worked with an adult literacy program. Through various writing experiments, as well as the close, proximate experience tutoring provides, I was able to get a feeling for and understanding of the Appalachian experience of poverty—but it was not homelessness. In Chillicothe, one got the mother who was paid by the state to get her GED, who went home every night to an out-of-work husband who called her "stupid" or "useless." This, in order to keep her self-esteem low, out of the belief that she would leave him as soon as she was educated—a not unwise assumption, no doubt. In Cleveland, I read for the first time about the husband who called his wife "stupid" and "useless" and then beat her senseless, until finally she fled home, taking her children with her.

   I learned that there were colonies of women in this situation, huddled together in shelters for the purpose—a communal society built on fear and anxiety.

   For me, The Homeless Grapevine newspaper was my first intimate experience with homelessness—far moreso than any of the books—pictures or nothing I had seen previously. And this, I guess, is the first realization I have made—the singular opportunity that The Grapevine provides to its readers: the view of life on and from the streets.

   As I settled in to work at the Coalition, I noted that beyond all other duties I would have, one set was recurrent: dealing with The Grapevine’s vendors—and I do mean dealing. For anyone who has had any extensive interaction with the homeless, one learns quickly that, in general, these people are far from stupid. That may seem a rather dull way of putting it, but the homeless men and women I worked with knew the position they were in keenly, knew what they needed to get along, how to get it, and what they were up against daily.

   Let me put it this way, a person in the shelter system once talked with me about the homeless gathered in the meal sites and shelter systems. They were described to me, largely, as a group which had given up. In the "system" they languished. They knew where their meals were and when, where the shelters were, their staying rotation (that is, a homeless person may only stay a given amount of time—a week, say—and then must move on) and that this was all the majority cared about. He said they had given up any hope for a better life, these homeless men and women, and were content to spend their days moving endless from place to place. As some contrast, the vendors of The Homeless Grapevine were filled with energy; and more than anything else, took an active role in their own lives—the first step of which was going out on the streets every day and earning money on which to live.

   Even more, the nature of the business required skills of which society approved: budgeting, planning, looking toward future goals, and affective manners that showed a respect for the customer. To be a successful vendor required participation in the community; to make money, one had to sell—to me, and to all of you who are reading this. So my second realization was, in an idealistic sense, that the Grapevine serves as a bridge between two very different communities occupying the same city—the paper, in essence, forces a dialog between people, a conversation.

   Eventually, I began working on the paper myself. I had, in the past, some rudimentary experience with journalistic writing, and had an undergraduate degree in writing and English. At Chillicothe, I had improved on a newsletter that the literacy program issued using a desktop publishing program and some simple graphics. Here, however, the process increased in complexity, not just in the software used, but in the layout and design, as well as the generation of copy. The articles in The Grapevine were, at once, more serious and elevated.

   Beyond the recipes and insipid biographies that were generated for the newsletter consistently in a predictable order and format, The Grapevine included autobiographical stories, displaying the subjective lives of its homeless associates; it examined local funding issues and priorities—how federal moneys were allocated, distributed, and spent; The Grapevine studied how people in need of housing gained entrance to metropolitan housing, and how the law regards metropolitan housing tenants differently than it does housed persons; the newspaper challenged local organizations, such as We Share, and how their administrators abused aid to the poor for personal profit.

   In some of its toughest battles, the Grapevine took issue with local shelter providers in their policies—such as distribution of homeless moneys, or whether a certain location for a shelter was in the best interests of the homeless people who would have to travel there. From the location of check cashing operations next to bars and liquor stores, to the profit gouging tactics of Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), the Homeless Grapevine has balked at producing the cliche story and angle and ignored the repetition inherent in today’s media. And so my third realization is the integrity of the Grapevine, its dedication under the editorship of Brian Davis to pulling out realities and jolting the willing reader out of the gray journalism clouding all of our heads today.

   Finally, it is best to mention the obvious and by far the most important gap filled by the Grapevine: its provision of a voice to the thousands of homeless men and women who, out of fear or torpor or lack of access to a system they did not create and which doesn’t represent them, cannot be heard. This is one of the key reasons for the existence of The Homeless Grapevine, and a reason it needs to keep on existing.

   The Grapevine has come a long was since its birth in 1993 as a photocopy paper. Its distribution has grown to over 11,000 readers, but its commitment to its mission of providing a voice to the voiceless and an income to the income-less has not changed. With a bit of luck, support, and with the continuation of the strong guidance it has right now, in ten years or more these most important of goals still will be a constant.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published July 1998 Cleveland Ohio