Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Last Word: New Vendor Manager

Hello, my name is Gregory Martin, Vendor Manager for Street Sense. I have been in this position for a little over a month now. You may remember me as a vendor from Gallery Place Metro station, 20 & K or even 18 & K. First of all I would like to thank all of you who bought the paper from me and gave me donations, especially the pastor who gave me monies for my rent deposit, the lady at Gallery Place that would give me $20 dollars and wouldn’t even buy the paper, and the gentleman at 20 & K with his words of wisdom. Your thoughtfulness and generosity were greatly appreciated. Since becoming Vendor Manager I’ve been walking the streets observing vendors. I’ve also been asking customers for their perspectives on how things are done and what we can do to make it better. Your responses have been great, especially when a woman told me she bought a paper from a vendor because of his pretty smile. I have been receiving emails with compliments and complaints and please keep them coming. As some of you may know, I will respond as quickly as I can.
Because I’ve been on both sides of homelessness, I just want to help make this company grow and with my experience I believe we can make it work and make it better. I know the vendors appreciate your donations. As a matter of fact, we are in need of restaurant review donations. If you would like to donate you can email me ( or mail it to the office. If you have any comments or suggestions please let me know.
Thank you!

-Gregory Martin, Vendor Manager

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Last Word: Comforts of Home

The harsh-sounding bell jangled as it does a hundred times a day here at Street Sense, signaling that a vendor is downstairs, needing to buy papers, needing to come up, maybe make a phone call or ask for a dry pair of socks or write a haiku.

That afternoon, it was volunteer Roberta Haber’s answer the door, so she disappeared down the stairs. When she came back a little while later, she sighed.

It had been one of her favorite vendors, a hardworking guy with a shy, luminous smile and a habit of talking to himself.

After he lost his place at the shelter, he had, in sly, yet urgent contravention
of Street Sense house rules, stowed a duffle bag in the office storage closet.

And when he had rung the bell, he had asked only for a small favor, Roberta explained. “He just wanted to look at his stuff.”

Every night, I turn a key, and a door opens into a small, well ordered place in the world that is mine. I switch on the light and I see my books there, and my couch and chair and rug. My stuff is there, silently greeting me. It is with a sense of gratitude and awe that I enter. I am home.

When the last vestige of home is a bag in a closet, there must still be some comfort in looking at it, touching it, in knowing it’s still there.

Some vendors use some of the dollars they earn selling Street Sense to pay for the storage of their things, what is left of the homes they once had, before they were thrown out or locked up, before they fell behind or got sick. Sometimes they cannot make the payments and lose those things.

I talked to a vendor recently about the loss of the things in his storage unit. He mentioned with the most regret the loss of his notebooks, his writings.
“You are still the poet who wrote those words,” I reminded him. “You will have to rewrite them.”

Are there things to be gained, to be learned, from losing the last vestige, the last comfort of home and then rebuilding, rewriting one’s life? There must be, I thought to myself, hoping his lost words would return to him in a fierce new flame.

--Mary Otto

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Grayer Times

After glancing at this issue of Street Sense or the previous one, some of you might have wondered if something has changed. You might have questioned: “Why is my paper so thin?”, “Why does it look so gray?” or “Is this paper smaller?”

Well, something has changed. As you have read, here in this publication and in various other media, the economy looks bleaker every day and these tough times are hitting all individuals and businesses hard. And nonprofits like Street Sense are not immune. As the Catch–22 of social services nonprofits goes, in a bad economy demand for services rises, but the money to fund such services becomes scarcer.
Street Sense has seen its vendor numbers increase 35% over the past year, with circulation increasing by nearly 30%. Yet at the end of 2008, individual donations, while numerous, were not nearly as large as past years. Grant income also fell short. And many predict both of these areas of nonprofit income will only get worse in 2009.

To prepare Street Sense for a worst–case financial scenario in 2009, we decided to cut back on our expenses. That’s where the changes to the actual newspaper came in. We decided to shrink the paper by an inch vertically, only shrinking the printable area by half an inch. We also decided to switch from bright white 35 lb. paper to a 20 lb. newsprint paper, the kind we used when we first started publishing Street Sense.

These two small changes will save the organization about $450 each issue, or more than $11,000 a year. And with a budget of just over $205,000 for 2009, $11,000 is a nice little chunk of change to save. While losing color on the front, back and center would also have saved money, we decided it was important to keep, helping with visibility and vendor sales.

So yes, Street Sense may look a little grayer and smaller than it has it the past, but you are still getting your dollar’s worth and then some as our editorial content — I think — has been better than ever, with hard–hitting news stories and unique features. Also each time you buy a paper, you can be confident that even more of our resources, and yours, will go directly to empowering our vendors rather than to aesthetics.

--Laura Thomspon Osuri

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Last Word: Peace for Vets

An amazing event? I
never would have
dreamed it! “It is
a time for change,” said Barack
Obama, the nation’s
first African American president.
The country is hoping
for better times ahead. In
the meantime, God only
knows what is taking place
on earth. Israel is attacking Gaza, bad weather, days of hard rain,
young African American men killing each other.
However, it will be an Obama–Jam at the capital this month, with
all the big names, Oprah and all the other stars.
Hopefully there will be local change also. A former U.S. Army
Green Beret, a war veteran awarded the Silver Star and the Purple
Heart found himself homeless. He was an African American, facing
unemployment with bad times and trouble adjusting back home.
Living on the streets of Washington, D.C. two blocks from the
White House, the flashbacks are gone but the tough times are still
here. So with this new Administration that calls for change, let’s hope
that this combat vet will find peace. And we as a people will find the
Promised Land.

--James Fetherson

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Street Sense Angel

“Believe me, it will all work out in the end.”
That’s a phrase I have often uttered to many a Street Sense staff member, intern and volunteer. And most of the time I get a roll-of-the-eyes kind of a response as the person continues to worry.
But after being at Street Sense for a long time you really do come to truly believe in the above quote. You continue to work your hardest, but simply stop stressing so much.
Ever since the beginning of Street Sense, things have always worked out, even if the breakthrough comes sometimes just a few hours from deadline. Sometimes the challenge is not having enough articles to fill the pages. Then a random volunteer comes through with a first-class article. Other times there is barely enough money to make payroll. Then the next day a hefty check for unsolicited grant comes in the mail. Things just work out.
Co-founder Ted Henson and I like to refer to these last minute mini-miracles as the work of the “Street Sense Angel.”
Yes, if you are wondering, I am religious, and I do abide by a saying at my church: “Work like it depends on you, and pray like it depends on God.” And while I do think that God has a hand in these inexplicable events, I do not think of a higher power when I refer to the “Street Sense Angel.”
This Angel is not a single being but the commitment and passion from many angels that make up all of the supporters of Street Sense.
It’s the volunteer who randomly appears the day before the new issue to gracefully layout out two pages
It’s the donor who decided to contribute 10% of her last paycheck to Street Sense.
It’s the intern who shows up on her day off to help get subscriptions out on time.
It’s the board member who adopts, at the last minute, several vendors for Christmas to make sure everyone gets a gift
It’s the reader who tracked down a vendor’s family to turn the vendor’s Christmas Eve into the best one ever.
You are the Street Sense Angel. And without you there would be a whole lot more worry and stress and far fewer newspapers and vendors at Street Sense.
So if you feel prompted to write a large check for Street Sense in the middle of your regular work day or you are prompted to volunteer some amazing talent to Street Sense for no particular reason or if you simply just feel prompted to write a kind email about a vendor, please do not resist. It’s the Street Sense Angel calling you, and whatever you have to offer is filling some great need you probably don’t even know about but will be crucial in making it “all work out in the end.”

--Laura Thomspon Osuri

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Last Word: An Eye-Opening Experience

Going into my internship at Street Sense, I felt ready to leave an impact on the lives of the homeless vendors. I also wanted to show that I was a determined worker, make some necessary professional contacts, sharpen my journalism skills, and get a taste of D.C. Going in, I didn’t expect that I would get more then I could ever give. I didn’t expect that my internship would reward me with more than a couple stories in a great nonprofit newspaper.

Interning at Street Sense two days a week for three months has been the most rewarding experience an 18-year-old moving D.C. would hope to have. Street Sense has provided me with the opportunity to mature, meet amazing people, and understand what homelessness is.

Before working at Street Sense I didn’t understand the complexity of homelessness. Coming from a suburb in central New Jersey, I always looked at poverty and homelessness as if they were some far away problem that I would never experience directly. Working at Street Sense has taught me that the effects of poverty and homelessness can be felt all around, and can easily and suddenly touch anyone’s life. While interning at Street Sense, I have became familiar with the real world, a world away from the shelter of my family. I discovered aspects of life that I came to college in hopes of discovering.

What I have learned about homelessness comes in the form of intellectual gifts and kind gestures felt around the office daily. The more vendors started treating me like a friend, the more I was able to understand that homeless people are no different than I am.

I have also perfected my ability to work under extreme conditions. I don’t know what I would have done if I had an internship with no distractions. The Street Sense office isn’t exactly the most serene place to put together a paper, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t look forward the times that Jeffrey McNeil came in and put together his political slogan signs or when I got to walk to the post office with Lisa, or Mary.

Street Sense has given me the perspective needed to value every second of life and to push through the stressful or difficult times because they are always a little something in the world that will make you smile.

At Street Sense, there was always something to do; there was always something that I wanted to do. As took on more tasks, sometimes all at once, and as I became acquainted with more vendors, I felt like I was digging to the center of the thousand unanswered questions about poverty and the politics of poverty in Washington, D.C. Learning about homelessness is learning about an important D.C. subculture necessary to understanding our nation’s capital.

The most rewarding lesson I can take away from interning at Street Sense is to value people for their personality and not whether they have a home or not. I have accepted the idea that you can learn something from anyone and I am glad that I allowed myself to learn an important life lesson from our vendors: the lesson of struggle and perseverance.

--Carol Cummings

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Last Word: Doing Good and Getting Real

I was starving. I did not have money to buy food; I’m an intern. I did not have time to go home and grab something.

And then, a vendor offered me part of his Subway sandwich; I almost cried. It was deadline day and this meant a 12-hour-day, the usual internet hassles, laying out pages at the last minute and getting work done while vendors came and went. That tuna on wheat – it got me through the rest of the day.

As I came into this internship I hoped to make a difference, get some good clips, lay out pages. I did not expect that the relationship between vendors and interns would be a two-way street.

Sometimes it was. But sometimes it wasn’t. And sometimes it felt like social work. Somtimes I felt frustrated when that came into conflict with other work, like redesigning pages or writing a story. Sometimes I felt like people didn’t understand that if we didn’t get our work done, there would be no paper to sell.
Sometimes people would come in under the influence of drugs or alcohol. And some of those times I was here on my own with a volunteer and another vendor. I’ve never been trained in social work, so those situations could be nerve-wracking. But I knew that the volunteer and vendor would have my back.

I came into this a die-hard liberal, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, sure that homelessness and poverty are simply systemic, and always forgiving of the individual. I still believe this.

Now I recognize that people can have a part in their destiny. I began to feel frustrated when people occasionally came in asking for food or clothing, having received something by chance on an earlier occasion. But when we said no, we gave out everything, they would get angry. Or people would sometimes for their ten monthly emergency papers, inadvertently ask for more, and then say I needed to get in the “Christmas spirit.”

It was hard to keep my head on straight when I knew Street Sense did not have to give out the extra ten papers a month. Poverty and homelessness is systemic. But social service agencies are here to enable people to get back on their feet. There is a huge element of free will that goes into getting your own place that I see now, cannot be denied.

People sometimes come in with their issues off the street and dump those on us. At first, I did not know how to handle it. Now, I would not take it personally.
The Street Sense office is like a stereotypical WWII field hospital. Phones ring constantly, I never know what desk I’ll be sitting at when I come in, foot traffic is constant, no one can ever find the bathroom key, the mentally and physically disabled tell their woes or grumble about the woman who told him/her to get a “real job.”

After working in this half social-service agency, half-news room, I could work anywhere and deal with anyone. Before coming here I felt more comfortable in the presence of local political players and even celebrities. Now, I’m comfortable around ex-cons and guys who live on the street.

There have been so many times when I would go home grumbling to myself. But then, there were times when a guy gave each of us in the office a pink rose (the fulltime staff is all female). Or when I’ve run into vendors on the street and they’ve recognized me and given me a hug. Or the time a vendor gave me silver earrings on my birthday. Or when a vendor gave me half his sandwich.

Lisa V. Gillespie just finished a semester-long editorial internship and graduates in a week from the University of North Carolina at Asheville with a degree in mass communication. She plans on moving back to the District to pursue a career in journalism.