Sometimes people in the community will ask, “What do street newspapers do for the homeless?” Instead the question should be, “What do homeless people do for our community?”
I’m still amazed some social service programs resist recognizing street vendors as workers altogether. Both Street Roots, and Real Change take pride in their editorial professionalism. Both Adam Hyla, Real Change, and Joanne Zuhl, Street Roots head up those respected departments, and like any publication – it doesn’t come easy.
Both papers are proving that while on one hand, you can have a program meant to benefit poor people, on the other, you can have a professional alternative newspapers – not a charity, but a quality product meant for the community at large.
Last year based upon paper sales Real Change in Seattle, Washington put $500,000 directly into the hands of poor people. The vendors selling the newspaper in Portland gained nearly $200,000 in a much smaller market. More or less, both newspapers are responsible for generating (not taking away) nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in the Pacific Northwest’s economy in 2005.
Some critics argue that selling a newspaper is not enough to get people off the streets. For some, that’s a true statement, but it’s not entirely true. Several vendors at both papers sell more than 1,000 papers a month – sometimes as high 1400 equaling around $1,000 dollars for that vendor. All of those vendors have been able to end their homelessness through the sales of the newspaper.
A large number of vendors sell from 200 to 800 papers a month, while several sell anywhere from 50 to 200 papers. The majority of vendors are homeless, but many are living in some form of low-income housing.
For people on the streets the benefits are being able to control their own labor by setting hours, and spending money how they choose. For example, you won’t find the majority of vendors in a line waiting for services (unless it’s for housing) – they can buy meals, hygiene essentials, and other items from the money made by selling the paper.
While most vendors do access services, they tend to be more health related than say, for a meal at a soup kitchen. Some vendors double it up by accessing services that provide basic necessities, and saving the money made by paper sales for greener pastures, so to speak.
Here is a quick and dirty of the things I saw vendors spending money on this week at RC: rent, medicine (not covered), animal care, hotels, car, RV, travel expenses, gas, hygiene items, public transportation, the movies, a walkman, nice clothes, identification, packages home to love ones, often times kids, or grandkids, and yes, sometimes beer, and tobacco. Funny, the list doesn’t sound all that different than most of my housed friends, and family.
It all comes down to choices, and hope, both things that are sorely missing in the massive social service industry we’ve built for poor people. It’s ironic that one of the urban myths associated with being homeless, or poor is that poor people are products of “bad choices” made in life. In response to this thinking, institutions have stripped those choices from poor people, and replaced them with mountains of bureaucracy – hours and regulations, visitor restrictions, waiting lists, long lines for services, etc.
When you don’t have a pot to piss in, your only choice is to do for yourself – and from my standpoint I see hundreds of vendors working, and trying to do something for themselves and for the community.
Of course, some vendors, or co-workers may say, “Israel – he’s full of shit.” But hey, that’s there choice.
So the next time you hear someone say, “Real Change, get your Real Change! Street Roots – hot of the presses!” Buy a paper, and give it a chance – you might be surprised.