Culminating in a march and protest at the doors of the San Francisco Chronicle on July 28, the international conference of the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA) gathered for three days of meetings and workshops to strengthen the street newspaper movement. For three blissful days in July, our NASNA conference brought struggling street poets, writers like myself, and homeless advocacy organizations such as the National Coalition on Homelessness face to face with more than forty street newspaper journalists from across the U.S. and Canada, as well as a handful of journalists from Europe and Great Britain. The diverse group of editors and publishers assembled under one unified roof to discuss and respond to issues as varied as are the newspapers themselves.
The cultural side of the street newspaper movement was well represented at a Poetry Cafe on the evening of July 27. I must give two thumbs up for the subtlety and dramatic performances by the joint efforts of PO’ Poets and the Raising Our Voices 2001 class. Novelist Peter Plate, with his marvelous recitation of verbatim passages from his latest book, Angels of Catastrophe, anchored over 15 street poets who performed a wide range of works protesting displacement.
In a superb address to a spellbound New College auditorium audience, keynote speaker and former Dean of the U.C. Berkeley Journalism School, Ben H. Bagdikian, minced no words when he showered rebuke upon the combination of forces that have increased the severity of poverty for some 32 million Americans.
“You see It! I see It! Everyone sees it! Homelessness in the world’s richest country. In every city of every size, one of the most disturbing sights is of homeless men, women, and families walking in the streets, sleeping in doorways, pushing heavy shopping carts holding their belongings, or lugging huge sacs of aluminum cans to recycling centers.”
“It is a national disgrace that for 15 years we have tolerated men, women, and their children forced to sleep in the streets. No other industrial democracy tolerates such a condition for its citizens,” Bagdikian told the crowd.
Bagdikian laid the blame for homelesseness at the door of a political system dominated by huge corporate campaign donations, and a bloated military budget first engineered by former President Ronald Reagan. Reagan preferred playing the game of Star Wars with the Soviet Union to providing affordable housing to the poor.
Another player in the failure to end homelessness “is definitely the major news media such as the big urban daily papers like the Chronicle and the network TV stations,” Bagdikian said. He pointed out that hardly anyone who works in the media can go to work without seeing homeless families on the sidewalks every day. “The homeless people are under the feet of news executives who decide what’s newsworthy and who decide which problems demand priority solutions by the government . . . but they steadfastly ignore the real solution: more affordable housing.”
One major topic discussed at the conference was how to create a process to monitor news stories and editorials for biased language describing homeless people, such as demeaning descriptions, unfair or one-sided attack articles, and inflammatory speech. To that end, the conference endorsed the demonstration at the Chronicle building on Saturday evening in an attempt to challenge, if not put an end to, the negative mainstream media diatribes against homeless people.
This year’s NASNA assembly was pivotal in that it searched for human answers to questions about homelessness, not the usual political answers that are printed by mainstream media outlets throughout the world. It was also important that the conference was held in San Francisco, a very rich city that is home to a staggering number of homeless residents.
Bagdikian saw hope in the fact that street newspapers are present in so many communities in North America: Austin, Louisville, Cincinnati, Chicago, Seattle, Washington, and Boston, among others. He said that just as local street newspapers provide a venue for voices missing in the standard local news, we need a national street newspaper to counter the corporate media’s obsession with affluence and commercialism.
Photos © 2001 Rebeka Rodriguez
Poster design: SFPC.
Challa Tabeson is a student in the Raising Our Voices Training Program. He is also an intern at the San Francisco Bay Guardian.