Street Papers Growing Across USA

Circulation keeps growing as larger newspapers struggle

By April Dudash
Contributing Writer

Three men with three difficult pasts stand in the streets. One didn’t have enough money to pay rent, and he couldn’t afford to find a place to sleep at night. A second struggled to find housing while he received money for his disability, but it wasn’t enough to get by. The third has been homeless for nearly five years. He was in a crash on his Harley, tore up his shoulder and destroyed his ability to find decent work.

Despite having different stories, these men all share a similar struggle with homelessness, and they have all found work as vendors selling street newspapers.

Street newspapers, which provide an income for homeless people and spread awareness of homelessness, are becoming increasingly popular in the United States. The papers publish news articles, poetry and advice, and vendors who are homeless or formerly homeless make a profit by selling them in the streets.

“I’m not homeless no more,” says Carlos Valdez, a vendor for the Denver VOICE. “I feel like I can contribute because they’ve done a lot for me.”

Staff members of street papers hope to provide opportunities and resources to vendors so they can find housing and income. Dale Harbour, a 52-year-old vendor with the Denver VOICE, has been homeless for about five years after losing his job due to injuries from a motorcycle accident.

“I do well enough to get by for now,” he says. “I feel somewhere I’ve got to keep going, and it’s a day-by-day thing most of the time. Eventually, I’ll recover from it all.”

Street newspapers generally rely on subscriptions, grants or donations to keep publishing. At a majority of the papers, vendors pay 25 cents for an issue and sell it for $1. They keep what they earn.

Rising circulation

Despite the struggling U.S. economy, street newspapers have been thriving. The number of papers sold has increased across the nation.

“It’s been pretty astonishing, really,” says Greg Flannery, editor of Streetvibes in Cincinnati, Ohio. “We’ve sold out two months in a row and had to increase our print run. It’s really unusual in that a lot of newspapers are going out of business right now.”

A year ago, Flannery says, Streetvibes printed 5,000 copies per month and sold out of papers. It has now begun bi-weekly publishing, printing 4,000 copies every two weeks.

“A lot of the success in the paper is due to generosity,” he says. “People know the vendors are homeless. They buy the paper just as an act of kindness. I’m hoping that people are now starting to buy the paper because they want to read it.”

Flannery’s 28 years of journalism experience has shaped Streetvibes into a publication that focuses on civil rights and pinpoints poverty issues and success stories.

“This little street newspaper put out by a small non-profit exemplifies what I think journalism is really about, telling the stories of everyday people and their struggles and their successes in a world that can often be very cruel,” Flannery says.

The paper has published stories that reveal the exploitation of Puerto Rican workers when they arrive to Cincinnati as well as the city council’s motives to drive homeless people out of the downtown area.

“When you’ve got nothing at all and you’re desperate just to survive, it can be a pretty cruel world,” Flannery says, “especially in Cincinnati.”

Other newspapers are also triumphing during the economic crisis. Vendors of the Denver VOICE sold 3,000 newspapers in January, and they were selling up to 16,000 only three months later.

“Our vendor numbers have gone up, and I think that’s a direct correlation to the economy,” says Gretchen Crowe, vendor program director for the Denver VOICE.

The paper has about 175 vendors selling the paper each month.

Street Speech in Columbus, Ohio, was selling about 600 papers in August 2008. Now, the paper is selling around 4,000 copies per month, according to Shea Davis, AmeriCorps VISTA and Street Speech coordinator.

“Most of them (the homeless vendors) really believe in the mission of the paper and they want to get the word out,” Davis says. “They’re happy to feel that they have a voice in the media and that they have a way to share their stories.”

Street Speech has given the homeless new opportunities, such as jobs in the community. A local restaurant was hiring, and the owner decided to employ one of their vendors, Davis says.

“The owner had seen him standing out there in terrible weather,” she says. “He just saw his perseverance and dedication and work ethic and realized he would be a great employee to have.”

All of these street newspapers are members of the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA), an organization that supports self-sustaining street newspapers around the country. About 25 U.S. street papers are members.

“The news, the information that is being covered by our papers, is not being covered by other media outlets,” says Andy Freeze, NASNA’s executive director.

Street newspapers generally focus on poverty and homelessness, Freeze says, whereas big media outlets tend to focus on these issues only when triggered by a larger event.

The content and location of a newspaper can also affect the amount of papers sold.

“If you have a quality product, people will buy a quality product,” Freeze says. “What makes some cities more successful than others is a large downtown and a large walking population.”

The business model of street newspapers, allowing the homeless or formerly homeless to sell copies, makes people feel “empowered,” he says.

“They are their own boss,” Freeze says. “They can choose their own hours.”

‘Changed their mind’

Other papers have a different approach. Making Change, a street paper in Santa Monica, Calif., relies on homeless or formerly homeless individuals to publish issues.

“We haven’t published regularly and that’s because I’m not homeless and I’m not the voice of homelessness,” said Moira LaMountain, business manager of Making Change. “Unless the newspaper is published by someone who’s homeless or formerly homeless, it doesn’t get published.”

A street newspaper gives the homeless credibility and a sense of validation by having them take part in a business, according to Jennafer Yellowhorse, editor of Making Change. She also can relate to the people she has worked with.

“I started the paper in the back of my truck when I was living in my truck,” she says.

Besides continuously looking for contributors and volunteers, some papers have to work with a tight monthly budget.

“We don’t know month to month if that money is going to be there,” says Tasha French, director of The Contributor in Nashville. “My immediate goal is that we get our non-profit status and get some grants so that this paper is sustainable. This paper becomes sustainable where it’s going to stay around, regardless of whether $100 is there or not.”

Papers also take the time to train vendors before they sell in the streets. Training includes teaching policies on etiquette, showing vendors where they can sell and explaining how to interact with police officers.

One of the main goals for street newspapers is to stimulate conversations between vendors and pedestrians.

“There are some people that walk right by you and act like you’re a ghost, that you don’t exist,” says Valdez, the vendor with the Denver VOICE.

Many people, however, have walked by and have given him multiple donations, he says

“I hear from customers where they didn’t want to give this person a chance,” says French, of The Contributor. “Once they read the paper, they changed their mind about this whole interaction. Those are huge moments.”

About once a month, French hears from a customer about how the paper positively changed his or her cynical opinion of the homeless vendor.

That simple interaction is sometimes considered more important than actually reading the content of the newspaper. Tom Wills, director of vending for The Contributor, says that whether people read the paper or not, they get the experience of conversing with a homeless person.

“You really can’t get to know homelessness without getting to know homeless people,” Wills says. “You can’t really get to know poverty if you don’t know someone experiencing it or experiencing it yourself.”

People who volunteer at street papers also tend to volunteer at local homeless coalitions and shelters. Pam Cordray, who works at the Salt Lake City Mission, is also working to put together the first issues of the Salt Lake Street News. She hopes that people will treat homeless people in Salt Lake City differently once this paper is published.

“They treat them (the homeless) less than human,” she says. “That breaks my heart, too. People are people. We are all God’s children.”