The first edition of a new Miami magazine hit the streets in December. Literally. Homeless people are selling the monthly publication, called StreetSmarts, and pocketing 60 cents on the dollar price. The cover features a derelict Santa with a cigarette dangling from his mouth; inside are articles about poverty and homelessness, and guides to community events and services for the homeless. Of the magazine's 30 pages, 5 are in Spanish.
"New magazine empowers homeless with guaranteed jobs and income," trumpeted announcements of the new venture. Just how empowering earning spare change on the sidewalk instead of panhandling on the sidewalk can be is a matter of some debate. But there is no arguing the fact that similar enterprises have been operating successfully for years in other American cities as well as in Canada and Europe.
The business of publishing "street newspapers" sold by street people, who often write them or are written about in them, may be a relatively new industry in this country, but it already boasts a 40-paper trade association: the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA). StreetSmarts is a near-clone of several publications that have appeared during the past six years in cities such as New York, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
The first street paper originated in New York nearly ten years ago as a simple way for homeless people to pick up some income, according to Timothy Harris, chairman of NASNA and founder of two street papers. "A lot of people liked to help poor people and they liked to see poor people working to help themselves," says Harris from his office in Seattle. "It was sort of entrepreneurial. It wasn't an empowerment project." Then around 1992 several different papers emerged, each seeking to be a voice for the poor and disenfranchised and to educate the public about the growing problem of homelessness.
By now many of these nonprofit enterprises are touted as financial triumphs for both publishers and vendors. "It's a growing movement," says Michael Stoops, director of field organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., and a staffer at the three-year-old NASNA. "The homeless are like any minority group: They need media coverage because the mainstream media doesn't cover our issues," he explains.
Covering streetside Miami, though, is going to be a whole different story. StreetSmarts publishers Carolyn Blair and Frank Kaiser face a formidable obstacle: gaining favor with the Dade County Homeless Trust and the powerful alliance of citizens who created it, who established a countywide system of homeless care, and who control most of the funding that comes into the county for homeless programs.
Despite the fledgling publishers' requests for support and applications for grant money, the powers that be have snubbed StreetSmarts. Blair and Kaiser (who are married and operate an advertising agency) say they've so far spent $15,000 of their own money to get their magazine off the ground. "We've been running around in a circle," Blair complains, "and it all comes back to the fact that the Homeless Trust controls all the money and they're not about to fund us."
Indeed Lynn Summers, executive director of the Community Partnership for Homeless, the nonprofit that created the two largest emergency shelters in the county, is unflinching in her criticism. "I find it completely contrary to any notion of moving people to independent living," she declares. "I don't think it's good for people, I don't think there's a market for it, and I don't think it's different from panhandling."
But Camillus House, the venerable downtown homeless facility, has donated office space (a tiny room) for the StreetSmarts headquarters. The organization is cautious about actually endorsing the venture. "We've donated space to them, and that tells you we're supporting the idea," says spokeswoman Georgia Brown. "That's as far as we've really gone. Their success remains to be seen."
Blair and Kaiser can recruit vendors from the plentiful supply of homeless waiting around Camillus House for meals, medical treatment, or a place to sleep. Anyone interested in selling StreetSmarts will get a briefing on the concept behind the paper and rules of conduct and "attitude" (no drug or alcohol use or aggression). If they decide to sign up, they'll get instructions on sales techniques ("Look the customer in the eye; be proud of the product"), a picture-ID badge, and ten copies of the magazine. Where to set up shop is left to the vendor. If he comes back with the ten issues sold, he can keep the entire ten dollars and receive another ten copies. If he comes back again with all ten sold, he keeps those proceeds, too. In addition he can buy as many copies as he can afford for 40 cents apiece and keep whatever proceeds come after that.
As of last week, Blair says, 39 vendors were working downtown Miami. The couple has also begun developing a StreetSmarts sales force in Broward County, which has proved slightly more hospitable than Dade; the Broward Homeless Coalition actually agreed to place a $500 ad in the publication's next issue.
The first edition of StreetSmarts contains an interview with actor and activist Martin Sheen reprinted from a Los Angeles homeless magazine, as well as another reprint about famous musicians involved in social causes. Blair, who is 58 years old, wrote an account of how she and Kaiser, age 63, came to start StreetSmarts (both say they are recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, and Kaiser was once homeless in Honolulu).
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."
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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."