DISSENTING VOICES OF THE STREET, by Terry Messman

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Over the past decade, an outspoken brand of iconoclastic journalism has emerged from the harsh experiences of people living on the streets in dozens of cities in the United States, Canada, and Europe. This dissident press of the poor has created a radical alternative to the values and biases of mainstream journalism at the very moment when poor people and those who challenge the status quo are largely shut out of the major media.

Street News in New York and Street Sheet in San Francisco launched the North American street newspaper movement with their founding in 1989. The movement spread rapidly to dozens of other cities during the 1990s, and now 40 successful street publications exist in the United States. There are ten more in Canada and about 100 in Europe and other parts of the world, according to Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

streetvrendorlight

And it has been little noticed until now how thoroughly these street papers have challenged the entire world view and modus operandi of the corporate media. A group of completely independent homeless newspapers has managed to escape control by the “powers that be” at the precise historical moment when corporations have bought, sold, and taken over nearly all mainstream publications.

Because street newspapers operate on shoestring budgets, they are not beholden to the considerable pressures of conservative publishers or advertisers. Street newspaper editors have found that if you don’t accept advertising from merchants and corporations, you are entirely free to report on how downtown business interests are the driving force behind nearly every police crackdown against homeless people, or how big real-estate developers cause countless evictions by gentrifying inner-city neighborhoods.

The outspoken and frankly partisan brand of reporting offered by these papers is also a bracing challenge–or a slap in the face–to the safe, sanitized, neutralized reporting of the mainstream press, which has, by and large, bowed to the idol of “objective journalism” and forsaken journalism’s heritage of hard-hitting dissent and critical analysis of the established order.

“Not only the mainstream press, but even the alternative media are not dealing with our issues,” says Stoops. “I don’t see any of the media sources dealing with poverty issues. I see the street newspapers as being the only significant venues for exposing poverty issues. We believe street papers are the most creative way for homeless people to express themselves to the general public in their own words and voices.”

The very act of selling these papers provides a needed challenge to the corporate choke hold on publishing. People who buy papers from homeless vendors provide them with a source of income and a positive alternative to panhandling, with no corporate profiteer taking a cut. Of equal importance, this innovative system of distribution enables homeless organizations to sell radical publications directly to the broader public, thereby escaping the progressive affliction of reaching only the converted.

No More Groveling

No longer does the homeless movement have to beg and plead for the mainstream press to give fair coverage to the injustices poor people face and the protests they mount. Brian Davis, editor of Cleveland’s Homeless Grapevine, says, “We don’t have to grovel for stories to get into the mainstream media, because now homeless people have their own paper. The other media now know our stories are going to come out in our own paper, so we tell them they might as well cover our issues because we’re going to publish them anyway.”

According to Paul Boden, director of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, “Street Sheet has given a recognition and credibility to the Coalition we would never have otherwise. We just couldn’t create that kind of recognition and identity for our work if we didn’t have our own newspaper.”

 Photo ©1999 Rebeka Rodriguez
Dozens of street papers have joined together to form the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA), with the mission of building a “movement that creates and upholds journalistic and ethical standards while promoting self-help and empowerment among people living in poverty.”Our nation’s long traditions of muckraking and advocacy journalism are neglected–or shunned like the plague–by the corporate media. This new grassroots press has materialized from the most unlikely fringes of society to offer fire-breathing analyses of corporate America’s economic depredations.
Paul Boden,
Coalition on Homelessness

Given the breadth and diversity of the Coalition’s multipronged homeless advocacy, it is all the more impressive when Boden declares that Street Sheet is perhaps the most powerful weapon in its arsenal. “The power of the press is *censored*ing awesome,” he says. “If our articles are written clearly and articulately, and the public senses there’s a truth to it, it becomes fact.”

 

Boden says it takes a long time for a street paper to build up its most important resource–credibility. Much of Street Sheet‘s credibility stems from the guiding editorial hand of Editor Lydia Ely, who has provided a consistent shape and tone to the paper for many years now.

“The reason the paper has a real impact with service providers, the mayor’s office, and the health department is because of where we get our information–from homeless people and front-line staff,” Boden says. “And we check everything out in depth, so over time you get a reputation for being accurate.”

Probably every activist in every movement knows the frustration of doing painstaking work and pulling off a successful protest addressing an undeniably important social issue, only to have it ignored by the establishment press in an apparent attempt to suppress the message. Boden describes the homeless press as one antidote to the news management and outright censorship of the corporate media.

“Homeless papers are important, because the major newspapers no longer hold government accountable,” he says. “Papers now are there to sell more issues to make more money to then buy TV and radio stations. A lot of papers have become conglomerates. Conglomerates aren’t going to hold the officials accountable who give them tax write-offs.

“And the scary part is that journalists seem to have bought it. The idea of journalism as a club to beat the government into submission and make it accountable–I don’t see it anymore. Mainstream journalism has become a sales entity. There’re certainly more pages devoted to advertising than to investigative journalism in the Chronicle.”

That analysis resonates with Anne and Forrest Curo, who founded Street Light in San Diego in 1996 after the mainstream press ignored the protests of the homeless community during the Republican Convention that year.

“We noticed that the police had become more hostile to homeless people as the Republican Convention neared,” Curo recalls. “We decided if the city was going to arrest people, we would hold a protest to make them do it openly.”

Despite holding a highly visible “sleep out” at the San Diego Concourse for a full week, protesting homeless activists were ignored by the wide array of media outlets present for the convention.

“It’s a matter of how you do any effective protest if you have no access to the public,” Curo says. “There are just a great number of issues where the city government’s line on homeless people is not only wrong, it’s absurd. But if you don’t have your own newspaper, you don’t get a chance to point that out.”

Homeless advocates in cities across the nation charge that members of the establishment press too often skew their reporting to favor downtown businesses and the anti-homeless policies of city officials, and present stereotyped accounts of homeless people that directly contribute to the growing trend of scapegoating the poor.

Indio Washington, the feisty editor of New York’s Street News, says, “No question homeless voices are locked out of the main media. The mainstream media are governed by Big Brother and the corporations and everyone who advertises with them. By not having that much advertising, we can tell it like it is.”

Many street newspapers also question the validity of the concept of objective journalism; instead, they say, their papers have the higher goal of seeking the truth. And that entails comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, as Dorothy Day used to say.

“I have different ideas of the true meaning of objectivity,” Street Light‘s Curo explains. “I feel that the side of the issue that I don’t cover is people and organizations favoring gentrification and economic cleansing, and they get covered well by the other media. Those forces are really the problem we’re up against–really powerful and wealthy and influential groups who stand to make a lot of money if they don’t pay attention to these issues of poverty. So our job is to bring out the part of the story that is more significant: The immediate human consequences to the people who have the most to lose.”

Norma Green, director of the Graduate Program of the Journalism Department of Columbia College-Chicago, echoes this view, saying that the importance of street newspapers is that they are the voice of “people who aren’t represented by the status quo, but want to shake up the status quo.”

Green teaches a journalism course called The Alternative Press that focuses on “journalism by people that have been stereotyped by the mainstream, including the imprisoned, the homeless, disabled people, gays, lesbians, and transgendered people, political radicals, and peace activists.” She is now researching and teaching the history of the street newspaper movement because she finds the papers to be a “profoundly important” means of expression.

“Most people think of the homeless as ‘the other,'” Green says. “And if you learn anything from reading these street publications over their whole history, it’s that homeless people aren’t ‘the other’–they’re us. It must say something about the human spirit, that despite all the adverse conditions homeless people face, they’re able to express themselves. It’s so vital they have this medium, because street newspapers manifest the imagination and vision of their creators.”

Bread and Justice

Imagination and vision are vital components of any social-change movement, but the homeless movement is also concerned with sheer survival–with bread and justice. Street Sheet vendors in San Francisco sell more than 30,000 issues a month, and Street Spirit vendors in Oakland and Berkeley sell nearly 25,000. That’s a lot of bread and justice: Nearly $50,000 per month of direct economic redistribution exchanges hands every month in the Bay Area. Chicago’s paper, Streetwise, lists a distribution of 60,000.

Indio Washington was a homeless vendor of Street News in New York for years before he began writing for the paper en route to becoming its editor three years ago. Washington is very clear about the economic value of these publications.

“Being homeless myself and selling that paper allowed me to make money and not panhandle or beg,” he says. “When I was homeless I didn’t like to beg. Having a product to sell that I could make money from was so important. I was able to buy clothes and to go to a movie, and even go to a hotel with my girlfriend. It let me come back to reality. Before being a vendor, I was in another world; I was talking to myself on the streets.”

Later, Washington began writing articles for Street News. “It gave me a goal,” he recalls. “It gave me something to do besides just sleeping and eating and wandering.”

Now that he has made the decade-long journey from street vendor to editor, Washington says: “It feels awesome to be the editor. Because I always try to do more.” His overarching goal for the street newspaper movement also feels awesome.

“We have a logo with a homeless person in a circle with a line slashed across it; that means stop homelessness now,” he says. “It’s like the impossible dream, man, but that’s my goal.”

Exposés

Widely publicizing injustices in a street newspaper can lead to unexpected victories. Boden describes how a Street Sheet exposé led to a major reform of the Community Substance Abuse Services in the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

“We exposed the putting green in the director’s office, and how they funneled contract money to a nonprofit agency to pay for furniture and cell phones that went into the offices of CSAS staff,” he says. “We were the major voice hitting on that and hitting on that. Then people who had been intimidated began coming to us with more documentation. Staff who knew it was wrong and staff from other nonprofits blew the whistle.”

The example teaches volumes about the power of the press–even the rag-tag, grassroots street press.

“Without a paper,” Boden reflects, “we might have spent six years filing administrative complaints, but by exposing it to our 34,000 readers, we had an immediate impact. People who are doing something sleazy, illegal, or unethical, the last thing they want is to read about it in a newspaper.”

My own experience as editor of Street Spirit, the East Bay’s homeless newspaper, bears out the power of the dissident press. East Bay Hospital, a notoriously abusive psychiatric facility in Richmond, had a 12-year track record of violating the rights of poor and homeless psychiatric patients, confining people in restraints for unjustifiably long periods and using poorly trained staff to dispense staggering amounts of antipsychotic drugs in the absence of any meaningful therapy.

For years, the mainstream press failed to report on those scandalous conditions. But after Street Spirit began a 16-part series documenting the intolerable mistreatment of low-income clients, including several suspicious deaths, patients’ rights groups mobilized and protested at the hospital; several Bay Area counties launched their own investigations; and the alternative weeklies and mainstream press finally began covering the story as well.

Because of Street Spirit‘s investigative reporting, a campaign was launched that shut down East Bay Hospital, the largest psychiatric facility in Contra Costa County and one of very few in the nation ever closed due to public outcry. Without a street newspaper unafraid to break the silence and willing to speak out on behalf of the voiceless victims, it is inconceivable that the hospital would have been shut down or even reformed.

In Cleveland, the Homeless Grapevine recently brought to public attention the wretched conditions in some shelters, and gained for homeless people a place at the bargaining table.

Editor Brian Davis says, “The Grapevine has brought to the forefront the deplorable conditions in the overflow shelters. They’re worse than being in prison because of overcrowding, lack of facilities, and staff disrespect. Because it’s all come out in our paper, we’ve been meeting for about four months now with community leaders and the bureaucrats to resolve conditions in the overflow shelter.”

San Diego activists have witnessed a similar positive impact from their reporting. “Homeless people who came into our offices told us that after Street Light started coming out, police were treating homeless people differently,” says Curo. “Some homeless and formerly homeless people were convinced enough by that that they were willing to help out on the paper on that basis alone.”

But street newspapers do more than uncover the unreported stories of our time. They do something else that is less tangible, but no less valuable: They give a sense of hard-won validation to longtime fighters in the homeless movement.

“It makes it a lot easier to participate in a very frustrating uphill battle when the work you’re doing is being validated and respected,” Boden says. “We’re not going to get plaques from United Way or the mayor. The validation we get is from the Street Sheet. It really energizes your batteries to see your work have an impact, even if you’re losing in the political arena.”

Indio Washington says it best: “I was homeless without a winter coat and I was freezing my ass off. I went into a church to pray, and a guy took me into the rectory and gave me a leather coat. So it’s like God or the Great Spirit or whatever has been good to me. And I want to give back to others. And now I have this paper to give, and it’s like having a new baby to put out every issue.”

Terry Messman has been the program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee’s Homeless Organizing Project for the past 13 years. He is the editor and designer of Street Spirit, a street newspaper published by the AFSC and sold by homeless vendors in Berkeley, Oakland, and Santa Cruz.

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