“Buy a paper, support the homeless,” bellows Hubert Serroul against the cold wind that probably accounts for the unusually small crowd outside Toronto’s St. Lawrence farmer’s market this Saturday morning. Hubert holds a copy of Toronto Street News in one gloved hand. In the other he holds a cigarette bummed off a friend. It’s almost noon and he has yet to make $20 compared to last Saturday’s $40. Each copy costs him 25 cents and he sells the paper for $1. Some passersby gladly give him change but tell him to keep the paper. Others buy a copy and walk a few blocks to where they think he won’t see them throwing it away. Clearly, cold weather is not the only reason hardly anyone is buying.
So why are people disregarding, even avoiding, such an endeavour? After all, as ventures go, this is a commendable one: street papers often inform the public on poverty issues that are ignored by the mainstream media, and they create employment for the poor and the homeless through their sales. They can also provide a forum and a voice for homeless people. And by offering a role in their creation, the papers can give contributors a sense of empowerment and self-respect, which encourages them to rebuild their lives.
Worthwhile? Undoubtedly. Worth reading? Not likely. Run by people with little publishing knowledge, staffed by a constant turnover of homeless and unpaid workers, most street papers are either off-puttingly strident or wildly unfocused and poorly written. What’s worse, almost all of them depend on handouts to survive. The few that have managed to gain commercial success have come under political attack from their more ideological cousins. No wonder these papers are as vulnerable as the people they are trying to help.
The homeless paper movement first began in 1989 with Street News, founded by rock musician Hutchinson Persons in New York City, and it’s still published today. The socially conscious, 28-page first issue sparked massive media attention and led to the creation of dozens of street papers across the continent. Soon the trend went international, after Gordon Roddick, husband of Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, purchased a copy of Street News on a trip to the United States and decided to start up his own street paper with the help of his friend A. John Bird in London, England, in 1991.
Bird had an interesting background: in the ’60s he was a revolutionary Marxist who sold copies of theWorker’s Press in England and slept on the streets of Edinburgh while on the run from the police. By 1991 he was working in printing and publishing. Roddick knew Bird would be ideal as an editor of a street paper, and his instinct proved right. The result was The Big Issue, a paper whose mission was to set an example as a socially conscious business. It intended to provide an opportunity for homeless people to earn an income, to invest profits to benefit homeless people, and to give them a voice in the media with an informative, general interest magazine.
The Big Issue launched in September 1991 and has become the largest, most successful street paper in the world. All profits go into The Big Issue Foundation, which delegates more than 70 percent of its resources to direct charitable expenditure. In 1999, The Big Issue Foundation’s revenues totaled over ?850,000 ($2.23 million). Of that, over ?600,000 ($1.4 million) was dedicated to helping 141 people to be re-housed, 70 people to secure jobs, 782 people to meet emergency financial needs through the Vendor Support Fund, and 388 people to secure specific drug, alcohol, or psychiatric help. Bird has become the godfather of Europe’s homeless movement, responsible for creating a blueprint that almost every street paper since has tried to duplicate.
“The Big Issue is now a household name [in the U.K.],” says Layla Mewburn, secretariat of the International Network of Street Papers and international director at The Big Issue in Scotland. “It’s even featured on some of our soap operas.”
The magazine has received many high-profile media awards, including the Commission for Racial Equality’s Race in the Media Award in 1998 for best consumer magazine, and the International Federation of Journalists Award in 2000. Editor John Bird won the British Society of Magazine Editors Editor of the Year Award in 1993. With over a million readers weekly in the U.K., The Big Issue has also spread across the world. Besides regional editions in north and south west of England, independent editions of The Big Issueare sold in Wales, Scotland, South Africa, Los Angeles, and Australia.
So why would such success, coupled with a noble use of profits, attract fear and contempt from the paper’s competitors? It seems to boil down to one point: the limited participation of homeless people in the writing and running of the publication. The Big Issue considers itself a “hard-edged political, social and entertainment” magazine and it has just one two-page section, called Street Lights, that features the writing, poetry and artwork created by the disenfranchised themselves. The rest of the magazine is a mixture of celebrity interviews with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tony Blair, or U2, and hard reporting on social issues like poverty, prostitution, drug abuse, racism, discrimination, and criminal injustice.
Some members of the North American Street Newspaper Association, including L’Itineraire in Montreal, felt strongly enough about The Big Issue‘s deficiencies in these areas to oppose granting it membership in 1998 when Bird planned to start up a new edition in Los Angeles. Although NASNA, founded in 1996 with approximately 40 members, is still drafting a set of criteria for membership, it values vendor involvement-meaning vendors shouldn’t merely sell the papers, they should help create them-as an essential part of its members’ core purpose. NASNA’s mission is to “support a street newspaper movement that creates and upholds journalistic and ethical standards while promoting self-help and empowerment among people living in poverty.” It seems obvious that even though it lacks full partnership with homeless people, The Big Issueotherwise matches this mandate. The real problem appears to be the split that has developed between papers that operate as profitable commercial enterprises to benefit the disenfranchised, and grassroots organizations whose mandate is to provide a voice for the dispossessed.
According to Robert Norse, editor of Santa Cruz’s Street Shit Sheet, early on in the controversy NASNA’s executive steering committee voted unanimously to oppose The Big Issue‘s entrance into Los Angeles because of concerns that it would put Santa Monica’s Making Change out of business. NASNA even debated whether to oppose its entry into North America altogether. In a message posted on the International Homeless Discussion List in January 1998, Norse wrote: “The Big Issue, with its disproportionate resources, focus on glitz and fluff, and apparent obliviousness to existing activist papers (likeMaking Change) may be a real threat…to the quality of homeless journalism.” Rumours flew that Bird was trying to infiltrate New York, Chicago, and Montreal. After months of debate, he withdrew his application for membership and began selling The Big Issue in Los Angeles for a year before he changed it into a free calendar of entertainment events for Angelenos called Off the Wall. Now Bird is negotiating a new U.S. version of The Big Issue that hopes to amalgamate with the Utne Reader to create a new magazine. It should be available later this year on newsstands and by subscription, and is also to be distributed by homeless people across the U.S.
In an article published February 1998 in San Francisco’s Street Sheet called “The British Are Coming!” author Paul Boden wrote: “The Big Issue is about big bucks pure and simple. Dishing out a few nickels and dimes to some homeless people doesn’t change that and doesn’t make them any less of a ‘poverty pimp’…to claim, as they do, that they lift people out of poverty through the sales of their paper is nothing short of bullshit.” Similarly, some NASNA members, like Chance Martin from Street Sheet, think The Big Issue is a bully that is exploiting the poor in a sensationalistic publication that champions capitalism. Consequently, some feel it supports the agenda that creates homelessness by catering to the rich with its glossy cover, high-profile interviews and liquor ads.
“Even well-intentioned people get sucked into these political problems that undermine the overall goal of the paper,” says Norma Green, acting chair of the journalism department at Columbia College in Chicago, and author of a case study on Chicago’s StreetWise. “It’s typical of activists to have philosophical and ideological splits in groups where people are forced to choose sides. And it gets ugly, all to the detriment of what you think they are supposed to do, which is help the people for whom they started this paper.”
In its defense, Bird says The Big Issue prefers to produce a lucrative professional publication with paid journalists. This way, it can provide services to help vendors and build a business to respond to a social crisis rather than create another charity. He’s straightforward about how this is accomplished. To get noticed now, he says, “You have to be sexy. Everything is about packaging, sound bites, and sexiness. With The Big Issuewe’ve made homelessness sexy. We’re simply taking all the bad tools and using them for a good purpose.”
It’s no wonder The Big Issue has had plenty of opportunity to prosper. With a population of seven million, London was estimated to have more than 40,000 destitute households in 2000. Toronto, with its population of four million, also has the worst homeless problem in its country: nearly 30,000 people used emergency shelters in 1999-not including the scores of people sleeping on the streets. The number of children using shelters in Toronto rose by 130 percent over 11 years-from 2,700 in 1988 to 6,200 in 1999. With an underclass growing by alarming proportions, it is baffling that Toronto lacks a respectable and profitable newspaper for its disenfranchised.
While two are published in Toronto, neither is successful. The black-and-white 12-page tabloid called Toronto Street News claims to help the homeless and unemployed by providing them with an opportunity to make money-even though the paper itself barely breaks even and its content has little to do with the people who sell it. For instance, the cover story for the week of November 4, 2001, was about a hazardous pothole on the 401 entrance ramp at the Yorkdale Shopping Centre. The article warned drivers that police were ticketing vehicles for “crossing the line” to avoid this safety hazard. Other articles included a piece on the CIA’s UFO history and a weekly horoscope by astrologer, publisher, and editor Victor Fletcher, a former typesetter. “This paper is my therapy so that I can sleep at night,” says Fletcher, who started it in July 1999, and now has a current weekly distribution of approximately 3,800. “It is one corner of the world that isn’t controlled by corruption.”
Others don’t find his paper so therapeutic. “This is unbelievable trash,” says John Miller, director of newspaper journalism at Ryerson University and author of Yesterday’s News, a critique of daily newspapers. “Making up stories, spoofs, and taking stuff off the Internet and reproducing it is not journalism,” he says. “This has no editorial mission.”
Fletcher says that although his paper is not “big enough to be on much of a mission,” he still tries to expose overpaid bureaucrats and abuses of public goodwill by power-hungry government and corporate superpowers. No one, he says, wants to read about the issue of homelessness because it’s a “downer.”
Toronto’s other street paper, the Outreach Connection, appeared in October 1993. Publisher David Mackin put his own father, creator of Toronto’s first street paper, The Outrider, out of business. In its nine years of existence, Outreach has been openly criticized by advocates like Cathy Crowe, co-founder of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee.
“I could pretend that I care about the homeless, and I do, but that’s not so much why I do the paper,” says Robert Callaghan, who was once homeless and is now in charge of production at Outreach. “I get a kind of ego kick out of doing it.” He said the paper began by focusing on homeless and poverty issues but readers found the content too boring and depressing. Unfortunately, its present material-Chuck Gallozzi’s column, “A Positive Place,” for example, deals with topics like road rage or how to find security in one’s life-is also of little interest to anyone. Neither, for instance, are the anonymous satirical news stories about a student’s dirty underwear or a businessman finding a cell phone in his ear. In the last three years, Outreach’s weekly sales have dropped from 10,000 to 5,000. In 1998, Mackin raised the vendor’s price of the paper from 30 to 40 cents.
Neither Toronto Street News nor the Outreach Connection is a member of NASNA, simply because they have no interest in applying. Yet they still consider themselves street papers, basically because homeless people sell them. Pat Capponi, former contributor for Toronto’s alternative weekly Now magazine and author of The War at Home: An Intimate Portrait of Canada’s Poor, Dispatches from the Poverty Line, and Upstairs in the Crazy House, views these papers as a huge waste of opportunity. Capponi, refered to as a “psychiatric survivor,” has become one of Canada’s leading mental health advocates. In keeping with the activist slogan “Nothing about us without us,” she feels that by not encouraging vendors to participate in the production of the papers, street publications are not helping the situation of the homeless, but are “cutting their legs out from underneath them.” Being part of the creative process for a well-read, respected paper that focuses on their issues would provide a form of therapy for people who have lost everything or have never had anything to begin with.
One Canadian street publication, an original member of NASNA, is impressive. Montreal’s L’Itineraire, a play on words that means both “life’s path” and “homeless person,” brings in volunteer professionals to train its 50 to 70 vendors in reporting and also offers them seminars and courses on writing and research. Vendor editorial contributions make up 60 percent of the magazine’s content. It offers team meetings, focus groups, and support services for all of its volunteers and paid staff, as well as plenty of vacation time to prevent burnout. With donated equipment, staff make a professional-looking, 40-page monthly for its roughly 50,000 readers.
L’Itineraire Community Group began as Cafe sur la rue, which was established in 1989 by homeless people as an opportunity to organize themselves without the involvement of social workers. It expanded into an Internet cafe that still exists today, providing the impoverished with invaluable access to information and resources that would otherwise be unobtainable. L’Itineraire, first published in 1994 by L’Itineraire Community Group, is currently under the editorial direction of Jean-Pierre Lacroix, a former drug addict who worked his way up through the organization. The street magazine-part financially viable publication and part struggling alternative press-brings in more revenue than the cafe and the Internet cafe combined. In its 2000 fiscal year, sales were $171,000. It has also been an active member in the poverty movement, helping to develop other street papers like La Quete in Quebec City. L’Itineraire now awaits the money from a federal government grant that will go toward buying the building it is currently renting and renovating one of the floors for temporary housing.
Our Voice in Edmonton also first appeared in 1994 and is proud that its vendors write 70 percent of the publication. Editor Natasha Laurence struggles to build Our Voice’s credibility by producing a readable paper that doesn’t pull back on the subjects that matter. “Advocates and homeless shelter workers have received reports of men and women who are set on fire, beaten, harassed, killed and even dragged to death,” says an article on aggression against homeless people. With pieces on everything from slumlords to squatters, Our Voice offers a mix of heavy issues, including local homicides, riots on Canada Day, and poverty statistics in Alberta. The paper is frank and unapologetic. “I want us to speak about the issues clearly and firmly without attacking the surrounding culture,” Laurence says. “I think that alienates people because you are yelling too loud.”
Our Voice writer and vendor Theresa McBryan believes people’s eyes glaze over when they read too much about the homeless issue. For three months last summer, McBryan, intending to write a book on the history of the paper, nosed through countless articles, many of which were hand-written on foolscap paper. She was touched by the stories of abuse, destroyed relationships, and lost children. “There is so much of a common thread that runs through all of these stories of genuine heartbreak, I’d find myself crying in the office.”
This type of content can, over time, prove to be too much for readers. “The thing is to convey the message without making people feel personally shamed by the information. People are overwhelmed by appeals for charity,” says McBryan. Now longtime Our Voice writers have moved on to ask larger questions about a society that creates these tales of tragedy, addressing issues like globalization, privatization of public services, and police brutality. “They have begun to realize,” McBryan says, “that their viewpoint is valuable.”
Getting people to read these kinds of cerebral takes on poverty issues can be a challenge for titles likeCalgary Street Talk. Jim Cunningham, a journalism instructor at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary, feels Calgary’s conservatism is behind the paper’s low sales figures. The former Calgary Heraldwriter says the city is overwhelmingly middle class and that some Calgarians have too much money and not enough sensitivity to the causes of homelessness. “Calgarians are not tuned in to the homeless issue. The city’s attitudes are more suburban than urban. You can’t carve that kind of a market out of a town like this.” Around 30 Calgary Street Talk vendors sell about 4,000 copies by donation every month.
While those problems are not unique to Calgary, others are more universal. As professor Norma Green of Columbia College says, “There are many things people don’t think about when they start street publications because they lack experience.” She explains that oftentimes the publishers are holding down other jobs, and without formal training they burn out. “People do this out of the goodness of their hearts, but that’s not always adequate enough to sustain it.”
Michael Burke, an engineer in Halifax, is a prime example. Wanting to create employment for homeless people, he decided to start a street paper. “It sounded easy at the time and it obviously wasn’t,” says the managing director of Street Feat, which first appeared in November 1997.
Other problems seem inherent to this type of paper: unpaid workers and transients don’t make for a permanent work environment. “A lot of the homeless are fairly dysfunctional and it is very hard to get them organized,” says Burke. Fifty percent of his newspaper team is made up of people he describes as poor. They have to struggle with the basics of daily survival, he says, so they have difficulty making a commitment. Housing, telephones, and computers-basic to most writers-are far beyond their reach.
Kevin Howley, assistant professor of communication studies at Northeastern University in Boston, conducted field research at Street Feat in Halifax between August and September of 2001 for his upcoming bookCommunity Media: People, Places and Communication Technologies. What Howley found was a fairly typical community media organization operating on a shoestring budget with old donated equipment and a skeletal staff, including four vendors who write fairly regularly for the paper. What’s missing, Howley believes, is the active editorial board it once had, made up of representatives from the health care field, church groups, and social service agencies, among others. “An editorial board is important to make connections within the community, to keep the paper in people’s minds, and to let people know that it serves a distinctive purpose,” says Howley.
Howley feels community involvement is essential for small papers like Street Feat. He’s witnessed publishing manager Juan Carlos act not only as an editorial supervisor but also as a quasi-social worker. “He’s helping these people out with their problems, making sure they get their bus passes or train passes, making sure they keep their court dates or social service agency appointments, or helping them find jobs,” he says.
Editorial boards are not the only thing communities can contribute: financial assistance is also desperately needed. Most street papers in Canada barely break even, surviving on advertising, grants, donations, or budgets from government-funded charitable organizations. If these assets were to dry up, homeless papers could be forced off the streets.
Another detriment to depending on handouts is that relying on the “big boys”-corporations and governments-can affect a street publication’s agenda. Rick Bell, columnist for The Calgary Sun, says it’s no wonder a paper like Calgary Street Talk isn’t hard-hitting-it is run out of an agency that receives funding from the government and corporate sector.
“If you run a paper that is constantly and caustically critical of the government, which is easy to do in Alberta, and is critical of the corporate sector, which in Calgary dominates, do you get to survive?” asks Bell. He considers Calgary Street Talk‘s soft approach to politics a result of its attachment to a charity, the Calgary Urban Project Society, though editor Paul Drohan, a former writer for the Herald, says he’s never had so much journalistic freedom. He even receives flak from readers about some of his critical editorials. In Bell’s view, “Street Talk provides a little window on a world that the self-satisfied suburbanites might not normally see. The difficulty is how far can you push it before you alienate your corporate and government patrons who keep you going?”
Soft or tough, homeless papers fill a very real need, especially when some mainstream dailies print articles dripping with contempt for homeless people. “Your gutless councillors can’t do enough to contain the so-called ‘crisis,'” wrote Sue-Anne Levy in a Toronto Sun article from September 16, 2001, titled “City Council’s Concept of ‘Disaster.'” “The only crisis, in my view, is that councillors have turned this city into the homeless capital of Canada. If only they’d spend as much time and effort solving the city’s financial crisis. Or the gridlock problem. Or what to do with Toronto’s trash.”
Such attitudes feed the creation of street papers, whose existence as a form of alternative press is imperative for those on the edge of society. There may always be conflicting ideas about what constitutes a genuine street publication, and that’s something Virginia Sellner, executive director of the Wyoming Coalition for the Homeless, applauds. Street papers all work differently, she says, but they all do good things.
Sometimes the good they do is painfully basic. That’s what Kevin Howley realized while researching Street Feat. Poring over back copies, he came across several obituaries of people who had died in shelters or on the street. Were it not for Street Feat-and the same can be said of countless other street papers-these human beings’ life stories, and endings, would have passed silently unrecorded.