Words on the Street: Homeless People's Newspapers

By Chris Dodge

First published in American Libraries, August 1999.


If, as journalist A. J. Liebling declared, freedom of the press belongs to those who own one, where can we find the real thoughts of people who can't afford to produce their own publications? How exactly are they speaking out? Where do you go to read firsthand about the real issues affecting their lives, or how public libraries can help them or what resources they need from us? An answer, and one that librarians should acquaint themselves with, is street newspapers.

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, between 1 and 2 million people experienced homelessness during 1996. The National Coalition for the Homeless cautions that this is a temporary circumstance difficult to pin down, but conservative estimates indicate at least half a million people on the streets during any one week in the United States. Other studies have suggested that as many as 7-12 million people have been homeless at some time. It is further known that homelessness has doubled and tripled in some cities over the past decade. At the same time, over half of the country's largest cities have now enacted anti-sleeping-in-public laws, 77% have passed anti-panhandling ordinances, and some have even outlawed sitting on sidewalks.

While the mass media typically cover homelessness as something that affects "other people," street newspapers tend to come from the grassroots and put a human face on the problem. Produced by homeless people and their advocates in urban North America and Europe, many-but not all-- are sold on the street by homeless vendors who typically make 50-75 cents on the dollar for each sale. Most are primarily written by "non-domiciled" and formerly homeless people. With names like Real Change, StreetWise, and Homeless Grapevine, they cover topics rarely given much space in the corporate press, and their viewpoint is often entirely different. For example most street papers list free-meal sites, legal services, and shelters. Some report on weather as it affects homeless people, provide profiles of street musicians, and review cheap places to eat. San Francisco's Street Sheet covers everything from workfare workers' union organizing to the demise of 25-cent bags of potato chips in convenience stores. Another Bay Area publication, Street Spirit, has offered advice for squatters and a sarcasmlaced column of poor people's etiquette. In Albuquerque Street News, one might read about how to arrange visitations with people in jail (not unreasonable, given that the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. has more than doubled during the past 12 years to over 1.8 million, according to the U.S. Department of Justice).

A phenomenon emerging over the past 10 years, street papers are currently estimated to number some 50 to 70. Staffed chiefly by volunteers, many of these papers manage print runs of 20,000-30,000 copies. StreetWise in Chicago claims a distribution of 60,000, while papers in smaller cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina, and Cincinnati have a lower distribution in the 1,000-4,000 range. Subsidized in some cases by advertising and other times by nonprofit support, their editorial focuses differ. A few are aimed chiefly at making money-"popular" papers-but most seem to focus to some degree on poverty-related political issues and free expression.

In the first category, the London-based paper The Big Issue, founded in 1991 with a grant from the Body Shop, claims a readership of over one million people each week, including several regional editions throughout the U.K. With a "social action" section of writings by homeless people, it also contains general-interest news stories. These "can't so easily be written off as puff pieces," cautions Edinburgh-based librarian Chris Atton, an independent-- press expert. Atton notes that The Big Issue was first to report in detail on the trial of Green Anarchist editors jailed for conspiracy simply for "reporting the facts of direct action protests." On the other hand, filled with celebrity interviews and ads for jeans and cosmetics, a Los Angeles edition of The Big Issue introduced last year doesn't even pretend to be a voice for homeless people; it is simply a tabloid designed to be sold by homeless people to middle-class youth, according to its former managing publisher, Art Kunkin. The L.A. edition competes with that city's grassroots Hard Times.

Editorially more typical, Chicago's StreetWise contains items for both poor people and privileged (or middle-class) people concerned about poverty. For example, each issue includes listings of services for homeless people as well as nonprofits seeking material donations. Belying its subtitle, "The Journal of Chicago's Urban Reality," the journal's film and arts reviews, sports coverage, and even its political commentary seem geared to those who can afford to shelter themselves. Still, each issue also features pieces about labor organizing, news clippings from other street papers, and articles placing homelessness within a broader scope. Have street papers made a difference in people's lives? StreetWise regularly runs vendor profiles about people getting their "pride and dignity back," as well as an occasional full-- fledged success story about formerly homeless men and women who have made it off the street.

A similar mix of empowerment and self expression can be found in other papers. Seattle's Real Change, for instance, features poetry and event information, as well as articles documenting and criticizing brutal reality. One photo-essay it published last year showed where four homeless women had been found murdered. This sort of journalism mirrors that of daily papers, with a concomitant danger: Are human-interest articles and "sad stories" raising consciousness or just making poverty an aesthetic issue removed from political struggle? Talmadge Wright, author of Out of Place: Homeless Mobilizations, Subcities, and Contested Landscapes (SUNY Press, 1997), warns that although "people's eyes glaze over and they drift off" when reading economic analysis, that sort of writing is crucial. Otherwise, Wright asserts, street papers are "just another small business to help a few people, salve the conscience of the privileged, and maintain conditions as they currently exist."

Street Spirit, a publication put out by the American Friends Service Committee in San Francisco, is one model for social-- change journalism. The most significant source of firsthand news and advocacy related to poor and homeless people in California, it documents-in articles devoid of newspeak and spin control-the increasing criminalization of poor people under laws that make it illegal to loiter. Not coincidentally, this is a rare street paper in that it carries no advertising. Recent issues have examined bans on sleeping outdoors, exposed the police targeting of street youth in Berkeley, and criticized San Diego officials for their efforts in preventing the use of an empty naval base for low-income housing. Vibrant in its dissent, Street Spirit also regularly contains powerfully original artwork. How significant is the paper? Thanks in large part to its 16-part series documenting abuses at the largest psychiatric facility in Contra Costa County, the institution was shut down after public protest.

Formed in 1989, New York City's Street News is generally recognized to be the first of the current crop of newspapers. However, street papers are not without historical precedents. One progenitor was Hobo News, published in Cincinnati by the International Brotherhood Welfare Association during the late 1910s and early 1920s. It contained everything from news articles about labor organizing and unemployment to essays about being a hobo, accounts of daily struggles (e.g., arrests), and letters telling hoboes' own stories.

Street papers are loosely affiliated through their own trade associations. The North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA), with 40 member publications, has met annually since 1996. The first meeting, held in Chicago, included a day of workshops on technical concerns as well as discussions leading to the drafting of a mission statement. Despite debate between activist papers and more entrepreneurial and business-oriented ones, NASNA members agreed to work mutually on technical support, public awareness, fair treatment for vendors, and efforts "to combat poverty through freedom of speech." NASNA chair Timothy Harris reports that subsequent conferences have been held in Seattle and Montreal, with the 1999 gathering set for Cleveland in July. The concept is in no way limited to North America, however; editors and publishers of street papers around the world have also met annually under the auspices of the General Assembly of Europe's International Network of Street Papers (INSP). Founded in 1994, INSP represents about a fourth of the 60 papers in Europe, Australia, and South Africa, including publications from St. Petersburg, Capetown, and Paris.

Of the 40 papers listed in the North American Street Newspaper directory maintained by the National Coalition for the Homeless, only 11 are held by any local public library. In fact, libraries typically give street papers second-- class status along with other local and regional publications, which may be distributed free in foyers but which are too often not acquired, cataloged, and archived. In Baltimore, Street Voice editor Curtis Price writes, "The main branch library here (Pratt) always removes SV from its table of free literature and actively discourages visibly homeless [people] from loitering on the premises." The publisher and editor of The Homeless Gazette sued the city of Dallas last year in response to a moratorium on distribution of free publications in that city's public library.

In fact, this sort of conflict seems to be in keeping with libraries' relations with homeless people around North America. The city council of Boca Raton, Florida, recently tabled a proposed ordinance prohibiting people with "offensive hygiene" from using the library (American Libraries online news, Apr. 19, 1999). Targeting one specific person, this measure would have mirrored the 1992 case in Morristown, New Jersey, in which Richard Kreimer was banned from the public library (American Libraries, Nov. 1990. After first suing and winning, Kreimer's verdict was later reversed in federal court (American Libraries, May 1992, p. 351-352).

Other libraries have been more hospitable, in part simply by acknowledging their de facto role as temporary safe havens. After all, just look at what's going on in the street. Police in many cities have been cracking down on homeless people, including street paper vendors specifically. In Santa Cruz last year, purveyors of Street Spirit were ticketed (and in at least one case jailed) for "selling newspapers without a license." Cleveland authorities have similarly harassed the Homeless Grapevine since its inception in 1993, resulting in the halving of its number of vendors. Since a court case was lost on appeal two years ago, its vendors are technically required to pay $500 for a business license and permit, though political pressure has temporarily kept this from being enforced. So oppressive have been conditions that Albuquerque Street News has placed atop its banner a defiant legal notice that for at least one issue included the statement, "Officers... interfering with this instrument are guilty of treason by sedition."

At least one book has come out of the street papers movement. Grand Central Winter (Seven Stories Press, 1998) is Lee Stringer's account of surviving on the streets of New York, helped in part by his work at Street News. At first a source of cash (Stringer writes about how to hawk a paper successfully while maintaining self-dignity), this became an outlet for his writings and landed him a job as editor. One upside of this was a temporary home in the Street News office. Another was that Stringer learned firsthand about journalism, helping sniff out a phony homeless advocate, for example.

Too often librarians have assumed the role of gatekeeper and kept materials out of libraries, from pulp fiction and comic books to tabloids, erotica, and punk music. Nearly a century ago anarchist poet and speaker Voltairine de Cleyre obliquely warned against this trend. "I include in literature... not only standard novels, stories, sketches, travels, and magazine essays of all sorts," she wrote, "but the poorest, paltriest dime novel... [and] baseball game account." Like these, street newspapers have both contemporary readers (and potential ones) as well as historical value. Additionally, they can serve as reference tools for things such as homeless statistics and resource data. If librarians continue to ignore their existence, their benefit is diminished.

How many libraries own The 99 Cents a Meal Cookbook (Loompanics, 1996) and the comic book series Down and Out in Berkeley? (The latter was reviewed in Street Spirit, by the way, complete with ordering information.) How many subscribe to publications such as Dwelling Portably and Living Free? In order to serve their mandate to provide materials for "all people of the community," librarians who already cater to hyped demands for "bestsellers" would do well to diversify their collections to better serve poor and homeless people. Street newspapers are one place they can start.

A first step is to buy street papers from vendors at ALA convention cities-and then read them. Next, subscribe to street papers in your community, or, if there is none, to Street Spirit, which covers homelessness-related issues with a wider geographical scope. Finally, consider creating bibliographies of materials helpful to poor and homeless people, including citations to street papers and related Web sites (see sidebar), and with links to local resources such as shelters and food shelves. These resources on homelessness should find a natural home in their communities' libraries.


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