The Dissenting Voice of the Streets

Commentary by Terry Messman of Berkeley California

         An outspoken brand of iconoclastic journalism had emerged for the harsh experiences of people living on the streets in dozens of cities in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Over the past decade, this dissident press of the poor has created a radical alternative to the values and biases of mainstream journalism at the very moment when dissenting voices and poor people are largely shut out of the major media.

        The first two street newspapers in North America were Street News in New York City and Street Sheet in San Francisco, both founded in 1989. From there, the street newspaper movement spread rapidly to dozens of other cities during the 1990s, and now 40 successful street publications exist in the United States, with 10 more in Canada and about 100 in Europe and other parts of the world, according to Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

        Dozens of street papers have joined together to found the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA) with the mission of building a "movement that creates and upholds journalistic and ethical standards while promoting self-help and empowerment among people living in poverty."

         Although our nation's long traditions of muckraking and advocacy journalism are now neglected, or shunned like the plague by the corporate media, this new grass-roots press has materialized from the most unlikely fringes of society to offer fire-breathing analyses of corporate America's economic depredations. Street newspaper editors have found that if you don't accept advertising from merchants and corporations, you are entirely free to report on how downtown business interests are the driving force behind nearly every police crackdown against homeless people, or how big real-estate developers cause countless evictions by gentrifying inner city neighborhoods.

         But what has been little noticed up until now is how thoroughly these street papers have challenged the entire world-view and modus operandi of the corporate media. In a fascinating twist, a group of completely independent homeless newspapers have managed to escape control by the "powers that be" at the precise historical moment when corporations have bought, sold and taken over nearly all mainstream publications. Because street newspapers operate on shoestring budgets, they are not beholden to the considerable pressures of conservative publishers or corporate advertisers.

        The outspoken and frankly partisan brand of reporting offered by these papers is also a bracing challenge - or a slap in the face - to the safe, sanitized, neutralized reporting of the mainstream press, which has, by and large, bowed to the idol of "objective journalism" and forsaken journalism's heritage of hard-hitting dissent and critical analysis of the established order.

         "Not only the mainstream press, but even the alternative media are not dealing with our issues," said Stoops. "I don't see any of the media sources dealing with poverty issues. I see the street newspapers as being the only significant venues for exposing poverty issues. We believe street papers are the most creative way for homeless people to express themselves to the general public in their own words and voices."

         The very act of selling these street papers provides a needed challenge to the corporate chokehold on publishing. People who buy papers from a homeless vendor provide them with a source of income and a positive alternative to panhandling, with no corporate profiteer taking a cut. Of equal importance, this innovative system of distribution enables homeless organizations to sell radical publications directly to the broader public, thereby escaping the "progressive affiliation" of reaching only the already converted.

 No More Need to Grovel

        No longer does the homeless movement have to beg and plead for the mainstream press to give fair coverage to the injustices that poor people face and the protests they mount. Brian Davis, editor of Cleveland's Homeless Grapevine, said, "We don't have to grovel for stories to get into the mainstream media because now homeless people have their own paper. The other media now know our stories are going to come out in our own paper, so we tell them they might as well cover our issues because we're going to publish them anyway."

         Paul Boden, director of the Coalition Homelessness in San Francisco, said, "Street Sheet has given a recognition and credibility to the Coalition we would never have otherwise. We just couldn't create that kind of recognition and identity for out work if we didn't have our newspaper."

         Given the breadth and diversity of the Coalition's multi-pronged homeless advocacy, it is all the more impressive when Boden declares that Street Sheet is perhaps the most powerful weapon in their arsenal. "The power of the press is fucking awesome," he says. "If our articles are written clearly and articulately, and the public senses there's a truth to it, it becomes fact."

         Boden explained that it takes a long time for a street paper to build up its most important resource - credibility. Much of the Street Sheet's veracity stems from the editorial consistency it has enjoyed from having Editor Lydia Ely provide a consistent shape and tone to the paper for many years now.

         "The reason the paper has a real impact with service providers, the mayor's office, and the health department is because of where we get our information - from homeless people and front-line staff," Boden said. "And we check everything out in depth, so over time you get a reputation for being accurate."

        Probably every activist in every movement knows the frustration of doing painstaking work and pulling off a successful protest of an undeniable important social issue - only to have it ignored by the conservative press in an apparent attempt to suppress the message. Boden describes the homeless press as one antidote to the news management and outright censorship of the corporate media.

         "Homeless papers are important because the major newspapers no longer hold the government accountable," he said. "Papers now are there to sell more issues to make more money to then buy TV and radio stations. A lot of papers have become conglomerates. Conglomerates aren't going to hold the officials accountable who give them tax write-offs.

        "And the scary part is that journalists seem to have bought it. The idea of journalism as a club to beat the government into submission and make it accountable - I don't see it anymore. Mainstream journalism has become a sales entity. There's certainly more pages devoted to advertising than to investigative journalism in the Chronicle."

         That analysis resonates with Anne and Forrest Curo, who founded Street Light in San Diego in 1996 after the mainstream press ignored the protests of the homeless community during the Republican Convention that year.

        "We noticed that the police had become more hostile to homeless people as the Republican Convention neared," Curo recalls. "We decided if the City were going to arrest people, we would hold a protest to make them do it openly."

        Despite holding a highly visible Sleep Out at the San Diego Concourse for a full week, homeless activists found that the wide array of media outlets present for the Republican Convention ignored the protest.

         "It's a matter of how you do any effective protest if you have no access to the public," Curo said. "There are just a great number of issues where the city government's line on homeless people is not only wrong, it's absurd. But if you don't have your own newspaper, you don't get a chance to point that out."

         Homeless advocates in cities across the nation charge the members of the establishment press too often skew their reporting to favor downtown businesses and the anti-homeless policies of city officials, and present stereotyped accounts of homeless people that directly contribute to the growing trend of scape-goating the poor.

         Indio Washington, the feisty editor of New York's Street News, said, "No question homeless voices are locked out of the main media. The mainstream media is governed by Big Brother and the corporations and everyone who advertises with them. By us not having that mush advertising, we tell it like it is."

         Many street newspapers question the concept of objective journalism altogether; instead, they say, their papers have the higher goal of seeking the truth. And that entails comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, as Dorothy Day used to say.

         "I have different ideas of the true meaning of objectivity," Street Light's Curo explained. "I feel that the side of the issue that I don't cover are people and organizations favoring gentrification and economic cleansing, and they get covered well by the other media. Those forces are really the problem we're up against - really powerful and wealthy and influential groups who stand to make a lot of money if they don't pay attention to these issues of poverty. So our job is to bring out the part of the story that is more significant: the immediate human consequences for the people who have the most to lose."

         Norma Green, director of the Graduate Program of the Journalism Department of Columbia College - Chicago, echoed this view, saying that the importance of street newspapers is that they are the voice of "people who aren't represented by the status quo but want to shake up the status quo."

         Green teaches a journalism course entitled the "Alternative Press" that focuses on "journalism by people that have been stereotyped by the mainstream, including the imprisoned, the homeless, disabled people, gays, lesbians and transgenered people, political radicals and peace activists."

 She is not researching and teaching the history of the street newspaper movement because she finds the papers to be a "profoundly important" means of expression.

         Green said, "Most people think of the homeless as 'the other'. And if you learn anything from reading these street publications over their whole history, it's that homeless people aren't 'the other' - they're us. It must say something about the human spirit, that despite all the adverse conditions homeless people face, they're able to express themselves. It's so vital they have this medium because street newspapers manifest the imagination and vision of their creators."

 Bread and Justice

        Imagination and vision are vital components of any social-change movement, but the homeless movement is also concerned with sheer survival - with bread and justice. Street sheet vendors in San Francisco sell more than 30,000 issues a month and Street Spirit Vendors in Oakland and Berkeley sell nearly 25,000. That's a lot of bread and justice: nearly $50,000 per moth of direct economic redistribution exchanges hands every month in the Bay Area. Chicago's paper, Streetwise, lists a distribution of 60,000.

         Indio Washington was himself a homeless vendor of Street News in New York for years before he began writing for the paper, en route to becoming its editor three years ago. Washington is very clear about the economic value of these publications.

        "Being homeless myself and selling that paper allowed me to make money and not panhandle or beg," he said. "When I was homeless I didn't like to beg. Having a product to sell that I could make money from was so important. I was able to buy clothes and go to a movie, and even go to a hotel with my girlfriend. It let me come back to reality. Before being a vendor, I was in another world; I was talking to myself on the streets."

         Later, Washington began writing articles for Street News. "It gave me a goal," he recalls. "It gave me something to do besides just sleeping and eating and wandering."

         Now that he has make the decade-long journey from street vendor to editor, Washington says: "It feels awesome to be the editor, because I always try to do more." His overarching goal for the street newspaper movement is also pretty awesome.

         "We have a logo with a homeless person in a circle with a line slashed through it: that means stop homelessness now," he said. "It's like the Impossible Dream, man, but that's my goal."

 Injustices Exposed and Overcome

        The act of widely publicizing injustice in a street newspaper can lead to unexpected victories. Boden described how a Street Sheet expose led to a major reform of the Community Substance Abuse Services (CSAS) in the S.F. Department of Public Health.

         "We exposed the putting green in the director's office and how they funneled contract money to a nonprofit agency to pay for furniture and cell phones that went into the offices of CSAS staff," he said. "We were the major voice hitting on that. Then people who had been intimidated began coming to us with more documentation. Staff that knew it was wrong and staff from other nonprofits blew the whistle."

         The example teaches volumes about the power of the press - even the rag-tag grass-roots street paper.

        "Without a paper," Boden reflected, "we might have spent six years filing administrative complaints, but by exposing it to our 34,000 readers we had an immediate impact. People that are doing something sleazy, illegal or unethical, the last thing they want is to and about it in a newspaper."

         My experience as the editor of Street Spirit, the East Bay's homeless newspaper, bears out the power of the dissident press. East Bay Hospital, a notoriously abusive psychiatric facility in Richmond, had a 12-year track record of violating the rights of poor and homeless psychiatric patients, confining people in restraints for unjustifiably long periods and using poorly trained staff to dispense staggering amounts of anti-psychotic drugs in the absence of any meaningful therapy.

        For years, the mainstream press failed to report those scandalous conditions. But after Street Spirit began a 16-part series documenting the intolerable mistreatment of low-income clients, including several suspicious deaths, patients' rights groups mobilized and protested at the hospital: several Bay Area counties launched their own investigations; and the alternative weeklies and mainstream press finally began reporting as well.

         Due to Street Spirit's investigative reporting, a campaign was launched which shut down East Bay Hospital, the largest psychiatric facility in Contra Costa County, and one of the very few in the nation ever closed due to public outcry. Without a street newspaper unafraid to break the silence and speak out on behalf on the voiceless victims, it is inconceivable the hospital would have been shut down or even reformed.

         In Cleveland, The Homeless Grapevine recently brought to public attention the wretched conditions in some shelters and gained a place at the bargaining table for homeless people.

         Brian Davis said, "The Grapevine has brought to the forefront the deplorable conditions in the overflow shelters. They're worse than being in prison because of overcrowding, lack of facilities and staff disrespect. Because it's all come out in our paper, we've been meeting for about four months now with community leaders and the bureaucrats to resolve conditions in the overflow shelter."

         San Diego activists have witnessed a similar positive impact from their reporting. "Homeless people who came into our offices told us that after Street Light started coming out, police were treating homeless people differently," said Curo. "Some homeless and formerly homeless people were convinced enough by that that they were willing to help out on the paper on that basis alone."

         But street newspapers do more than uncover the unreported stories of our time. They do something else that is less tangible, but no less valuable. They give a sense of hard-won validation to longtime fighters in the homeless movement.

        "It makes it a lot easier to participate in a very frustrating uphill battle when the work you're doing is being validated and respected," Boden said. "We're not going to get plaques from United Way or the mayor. The validation we get is from the Street Sheet. It really energizes your batteries to see your work have an impact even if you're losing in the political arena."

        Indio Washington says it best: "I was homeless without a winter coat and I was freezing my ass off. I went into a church to pray and a guy took me into the rectory and gave me a leather coat. So it's like God or the Great Spirit or whatever has been good to me. And I want to give back to others. And now I have this paper to give and it's like having a new baby to put out every issue."

 Editor's Note: To find out more about street newspapers, contact:

Street Sheet c/o Coalition on Homelessness

(415) 346-3740

Street Spirit

c/o American Friends Service Committee

(415) 565-0201, ext. 25 or email: spirit@afsc.org

Street Light

(619) 338-9081 or email: forest@cts.com

Street News

(718) 268-5165

National Coalition for the Homeless

(202) 737-6444, ext. 311

Republished by the Homeless Grapevine Issue 34 April-May 1999