"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.