Miracle on G Street

June 1, 2005, midnight | By Avi Wolfman-Arent | 15 years, 7 months ago

Street Sense newspaper empowers area homeless

And on a cold winter night I might see above the glare of streetlights a lone bright star, a blazing beacon overhead, and I'll wonder, does it shine for me?

These are the words of the fallen, the invisible masses that live amongst us or, in the eyes of many, beneath us. These are the words of David Harris, poet, scholar and man who, for years, had no home.

His words are just a snapshot of the material in Street Sense, a newspaper about the homeless, sold by the homeless and partially produced by the homeless. Street Sense does not seek Pulitzers or even profits. Instead, it has a far nobler goal: changing lives, one subscription at a time.

Last November, Street Sense marked its one-year anniversary as the Washington, D.C., area's only newspaper dedicated to issues affecting the homeless. The paper operates without a single full-time employee and is mostly compiled by volunteer writers, with additional opinions and poetry written by homeless or formerly homeless authors. The homeless also act as vendors, buying the papers at 30 cents each and selling them for a dollar. Vendors make between $30 and $50 for one day's work.

According to the Public Broadcasting Service, Street Sense is one of 40 homeless papers in the U.S. and Canada and one of only 100 worldwide. Although its 8,000- to 10,000-person readership is modest, the paper plays an integral role in the community, serving as the lone voice for the approximately 14,000 homeless people in the D.C.-metropolitan area on a given night. The paper's ambition is reflected in its unofficial motto: "to empower the powerless, to make the voiceless heard."

Going to town

They greeted me with open arms, they told me about a new way of life, a road of recovery that I would travel on. It's going to be bumpy.
- Leonard Cannady; Volume 1, Issue 3

On the second floor of The Church of the Epiphany in Northwest D.C. is a sparsely decorated room with peeling paint, one table, a dozen chairs and an antiquated computer. Standing at the door is a smiling young businesswoman who introduces herself as Laura Thompson Osuri, the paper's co-founder and acting co-editor-in-chief.

Osuri, a journalist with American Banker, created Street Sense with fellow writer Ted Henson after seeing similar publications in other cities. Looking back at the flagship issue, Osuri is surprised that the paper even got off the ground. "We were just hoping we could get out the first issue," she says. "Once we did, it was like, `What do we do now?'"

Since then, Street Sense has become a mainstay of the D.C. journalism circuit, allowing the homeless to be a part of something constructive. "Not only are the vendors making money, they're playing an integral role in the making of the paper," says Vincent Indelicato, a Street Sense volunteer.

Just ten volunteers and a table

Street Sense is about more than a person down on their luck, more than a mere hand out for a buck, much more than stories of the unfortunate.
- Anthony Ellis; Volume 2, Issue 2

As 6 p.m. approaches, about 10 volunteers begin to stroll in one by one for the monthly meeting about the next issue. They seem far removed from their subjects: With the exception of one elderly woman, the writers are all young, ambitious, white-collar workers, many of whom are fresh out of college and none of whom look homeless. Osuri starts the conversation. "I'm thinking we need to do something on homeless families," she says, and suddenly, a chorus of eager voices chimes in. One of them says, "What about homeless teens? Are they graduating? Are they even going to school?"

After the meeting, the volunteers plunge into a fast-paced, month-long cycle to complete the production of the paper. The volunteers report and write their stories, which are edited by Osuri and Henson. Henson lays out the entire 20-page paper on his personal computer.

Although creating a newspaper while holding a full-time job is demanding, volunteer Diane Rusignola has enjoyed working on the paper. "It just clicked. I can volunteer and do something I want to do and like to do," says Rusignola. After completing the paper's layout, Henson sends a copy to The Washington Times, which prints and bundles 10,000 copies.

Making a sale

About 30 of these copies have landed in the arms of Jake Ashford, a vendor. Ashford swings open the doors of the church and begins to navigate the bustling city streets. With a thick stack of newspapers under his right arm, he prepares to make a living the only way he has known for the last five months: selling Street Sense. His life today is in stark contrast to the man who once raised a family and traveled the world while working for the federal government. However, the opportunity afforded by the paper has given Ashford the first glimmer of hope that he has seen in a long time. Ashford's first stop for the day will be the entrance to the Metro Center subway station. He hopes to catch commuters heading home for the weekend. En route to the station, he sees two homeless men standing outside a McDonald's. Ashford greets them like old friends.

"What's happenin' today, soldiers?" he says, offering them each a handshake.

"Not much," one replies. "How about you, brother?"

Ashford flashes a smile. "Oh, you know me. I'm just hangin' in there," he says.

Outside the station, Ashford begins to openly solicit pedestrians. "What-a-what-about it?" he calls out, holding up a copy of the newspaper. "Take it for the train ride, take it on the inside," Ashford says. "Help us out, y'all. Help your community."

Most of the commuters look down and walk quickly past him, not even offering a polite nod. His voice echoes dismally off the walls, and even at this crowded subway stop, it appears that Ashford's cries are directed at no one at all.

After 10 minutes, Ashford hasn't sold a single paper. "This is a hard corner," he says, "but it works out in the end, hopefully."

Deceiving appearances

Unstoppable, irreproachable, that's right — the journey — infinite dream, may it come to exist.
- Tami Townsend; Volume 1, Issue 3

Sometimes things do "work out" at Street Sense. Back at the church, receptionist August Mallory is seated at the computer. Mallory has been a vendor and writer with the paper since it began and has become a Street Sense "success story." A Navy veteran, Mallory lost his job and became homeless while living in South Carolina. Six years ago, after hearing about the services provided to the homeless in D.C., he moved to the area.

Mallory worked as a vendor and staff writer with the first homeless newspaper in D.C., Street Wise. In 2001, Street Wise folded, and in 2003, Mallory joined Street Sense after the editors saw a piece he had written. With money he earned as a vendor, Mallory was able to escape the shelter system and rent his own apartment.

Despite having a full-time job, Mallory continues to be a dedicated volunteer at Street Sense because he believes that the homeless are misunderstood and mistreated by the general public. Street Sense, he says, helps combat these stereotypes. "People feel that if you're homeless, you're not well-educated, that you're a dropout," Mallory says. "I've met people with Bachelor's degrees and Master's degrees who are homeless because of some unfortunate events. Homelessness can happen to just about anybody."

Mallory says Street Sense gives the destitute the hope that they can improve their lives, explaining, "It takes work to better yourself, and it's not easy. But you have to keep pushing, and good things will happen."
And once the paper leaves the church doors, it becomes more than a story or a headline — it brings hope to an entire community.

He says to himself, "I was once like that." He thinks and ponders and he asks God, "Why me?
Why me God? Where did my life go? I once had a home."

- August Mallory; Volume 2, Issue 3

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Avi Wolfman-Arent. Avi Wolfman-Arent has been called many things: super genius, mega hunk and an all around cool guy; but through the praise he has remained down-to-earth and humble. At a muscular five feet nine inches he may seem intimidating when striding down Blair Boulevard, but when … More »

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