WASHINGTON – It’s not unusual to hear the phrase “Help the homeless help themselves” on the streets of D.C. It is one of the catch phrases for Street Sense,a paper sold and partially written by homeless people.
“The world doesn’t own you nothing because you’re homeless,” Phillip Black,a Street Sense vendor and writer,said.
The paper is mostly written by a staff of about 10 interns and volunteers,Managing Editor Eric Falquero said. The main story and others are written by vendors. Volunteers run writing groups help the vendors develop skills to write their poetry and short stories.
Black says he goes to every class. He became homeless about five years ago when medical bills for treating a perforated ulcers pilled up. The illness kept him from working as a plumber. He was also involved with drugs.
Black said he’s been beaten up twice at homeless shelters. So he prefers to ride buses back and forth from midnight to 4 a.m. before starting to sell the paper. He said he begins at 5 a.m.,generally on the corner of 11th and E streets NW,just off Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington.
When he started to sell the newspaper,he said he felt ashamed. He threw his first stack of papers in the trashcan after not being able to sell them. But he said he was hungry and went back to pick them up “hoping the trash man didn’t come.” He’s now so comfortable selling the paper he has adopted a marketing strategy,calling himself “The Cat in the Hat” and wearing the striped hat of the character in the Dr. Seuss book.
Another writer,Jeffery McNeil,43,has been published in the Washingtonian magazine. His first-person account told about the time a man threw his prosthetic leg at him and when Alan Greenspan ignored him on the street.
“Bill O’Reilly blew me off too,” McNeil said.
He said he started writing so he could get some free papers.
A drinking problem led to two years living on the streets and sleeping at Union Station. He now rents a room with the money he gets selling Street Sense. A chance encounter with church group members who bought the paper led to a reunion with his father after 13 years.
The bimonthly paper is sold to the vendors for 35 cents. Vendors sell them for a suggested $1 donation and keep the difference. Before new vendors start to sell the paper,Falquero,who works in shorts and flip-flops,said they get training from veteran vendors. Falquero was an intern at Street Sense when he studied graphic design at Marshall University in West Virginia and became editor after graduating.
Allen Hoorn,manager of Street Sense,said the paper doesn’t want sellers to be dependent on their income from the paper. Hoorn said the paper hopes to be able to direct sellers to other organizations that can help them get off the streets.
The plan is that if vendors sell the paper for six months to a year,they should have the resources to get off the streets.
Horn said some of the vendors have mental issues,drug problems or have been victims of crime and abuse.
Street Sense was created in 2003. It is now run by a nonprofit organization. Its headquarters is a small room in the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in central downtown,where interns work and the 137 vendors come to buy papers. A company prints about 15,000 copies of each issue for “a very good rate,” Falquero said.
The paper had a late Christmas party Tuesday attended by about 25 vendors. The festive gathering included awards for “Uncle Sam War Bond Salesman of the Year,” given to several vendors,including Tommy Bennett,tered Street Sense vendor.
“I’m first now,” he said,because the other two no longer sell the paper.
One thorny issue that didn’t come up at the party is sales territories.
Falquero said vendors have assigned corners,but some of them don’t want other vendors selling on their corners,even when they are not there,which has been generating tensions.
Gary Minter,61,doesn’t mind if other vendors sell on his corner. He goes to neighborhoods he likes,including Chinatown and Foggy Bottom,to sell the paper.
“If you’re going to sell,why not have a good time,” Minter said.
He was wearing a shirt,tie and tennis shoes at the party. The Chicago native became homeless after suffering from severe depression after his mother died in 2007. He now lives in Metropolitan House,a shelter run by Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church.
Minter uses Street Sense in addition to food stamps to make ends meet and to keep his mind busy.
“It gets me out and busy instead of sitting around doing nothing,” he said.
He said he’s had a better attitude toward life since becoming a seller. Although he has relatives in the city,he prefers to stay at the shelter.
“I want to be on my own,” he said.
Reach reporter Robin Siteneski at [email protected] or 202-326-9868. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.