Brother, Can You Spare a Byline?

Miami's street people are selling a new magazine, and the Dade County Homeless Trust isn't buying

The premier issue also features poetry written by homeless people, descriptions of local diners, social service listings, a story about homelessness in South Florida that includes tips on how readers can help those living on the streets, and a fanciful tale of Santa's sleigh crashing on Flagler Street after colliding with turkey buzzards overhead.

Most of the $15,000 Blair and Kaiser have spent has paid for fact-finding trips to Montreal (a NASNA convention) and Chicago (observing operations of that city's street paper), printing 15,000 issues, developing a Website, and mailing out copies of the debut issue. The money has come mainly from earnings of Kaiser Communications, an ad agency the couple founded in Chicago and moved to Miami ten years ago.

They became intrigued with the idea of starting a street paper after coming across one during a visit to London several years ago. Their motive, they say, is not to make money. "We saw this works in other cities," explains Blair. "We just see this as a way to change some lives. This is a time in our lives when we decided we had to do something to make a difference."

Claims of remarkable earnings abound. Kaiser and Blair say at least one man working at Bayside Marketplace made $88 in one day. In other cities with established papers, such as Chicago and Seattle, some homeless workers are reportedly pulling in $450 to $750 per month. Circulation figures are even more impressive: Chicago's StreetWise has sold nine million copies in the six years of its existence, according to executive director Anthony Oliver, and reports average sales of 120,000 per month.

In Seattle RealChange has a circulation of about 25,000 copies per month, a figure that is expected to climb fifteen to twenty percent now that the magazine is bimonthly, says executive director Timothy Harris. "This is an opportunity for someone who has absolutely no income and is desperate," Harris explains. "We see people come in with really subterranean self-esteem. As they begin to gain some experience, get good feedback, and start to develop relationships with people out there, it really changes their outlook. Their experiences with success sometimes leads to them getting work."

The number of homeless people who use their experiences as vendors to secure permanent employment and housing remains largely unknown. None of the established street papers except StreetWise in Chicago has tracked this with any regularity. But StreetWise's Oliver reports that in 1997, a respectable 34 percent of his vendors went on to stable, permanent jobs. The successful sellers, Oliver acknowledges, are those who are highly motivated. Like most who work in the field, he recognizes that a significant percentage of his vendors (perhaps twenty percent) are chronically homeless and won't change their lifestyles, but they can do well selling papers and use the extra money for comfort items such as restaurant meals.

So in a sense, critics point out, selling a street paper keeps a street person in the very place he's supposed to leave, a paradox that troubles Lynn Summers of the Community Partnership for Homeless. "I think it's exploiting the condition of homelessness," she contends. "I can see some value in joining in some initiative because homeless people tend to be so remote, isolated, and cut off. But I wonder if there aren't other ways to provide that joining experience."

Blair and Kaiser figure that as StreetSmarts becomes known, they'll prove to their detractors that the paper really can empower the homeless, and that financial support will begin to supplement sales revenues. They also hope they'll be able to attract local writers, artists, and photographers as contributors.

"When street newspapers get off the ground, generally they don't have any staff. They scrape together money to put out the first issue, then word starts to spread," says Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless and one of Kaiser and Blair's most avid supporters over the past several months. "Then they add subscriptions, then they're able to get grants," he notes.

That's what happened with StreetWise in Chicago, certainly the star of America's street-newspaper movement. That paper now has a staff of fifteen, an annual budget of $900,000, and last month opened a $750,000 job-training center. Says executive director Anthony Oliver: "It's a stair step from selling newspapers to gainful employment."

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