Wednesday, November 28, 2007

DIRECTOR'S NOTE: Too Much of a Good Thing

With Thanksgiving over and Christmas close at hand, the holiday season is definitely upon us. Like every year, with the holidays comes what we around the Street Sense office like to call “homeless season.”

“Homeless season” is the time of the year when everybody suddenly seems to take notice of those less fortunate, notably homeless individuals. Newspapers run more stories about homelessness, particularly on children and families; volunteers flood organizations that serve the homeless hoping to get at least one day in making sandwiches or handing out hygiene supplies; and donations upon donations of clothing come pouring in to all human service nonprofits, regardless of if they can even accommodate such items.

The reason for this sudden recognition of homeless individuals is quite obvious: the holidays are a time of giving and sharing happiness, so people want to give to those who have the least. Also the holidays fall conveniently at the end of the year when the forthcoming tax exemptions from charitable donations are at the top of many people’s minds.

But while all this attention to the homeless population is encouraging, it’s simply far too much of a good thing. Our vendors report becoming overweight because of all the donated food during the holidays. Also during the holidays, I have seen many vendors just throw out sweaters and hats instead of cleaning them because of their abundance at this time. Soup kitchens also throw out and turn away more food than ever during this time. And other service providers say their volunteer rosters for the holiday season are booked months in advance.

All this giving, unfortunately, is also fleeting. Inevitably, at the end of January, when people pack up their holiday decorations for the next year, so, too, do they pack up their giving spirit. Donations of cash and goods suddenly dry up and the volunteer numbers dwindle. And the media coverage of the homeless strangely stops for another 10 months.

Unlike the Christmas lights and holly wreaths, homeless individuals cannot be packed up for next season; they are with us all year long. On any given night – even outside the holiday season – in the D.C. area there are about 12,000 homeless individuals, a little under half of whom are in the District alone.

So as you consider giving your time, goods or funds this holiday season, consider holding off on that gift until another time in the year. Contribute a little extra money in April when you get your tax refund; donate bottled water, t-shirts and fans in July when the hyperthermia season is at its peak; take an extra day of vacation during the summer and spend it serving the homeless. Or better yet, sustain your giving throughout the year. Volunteer to tutor a homeless child once a week, help teach a skills training course once a month, or during your bi-weekly grocery store trip, buy a little extra to donate to the food pantry.

And most nonprofits, including Street Sense, offer automatically recurring deductions when you donate online with a credit card.

Thanks to everyone for thinking of homeless individuals this holiday season. But please, please, keep them in your thoughts, prayers and donations more than just six weeks out of the year.

If you need more information on volunteer opportunities, look at the directory on page 15. You can also contact D.C. Cares for other volunteer opportunities at

If you would like to volunteer for Street Sense throughout the year, please email Koki Smith at for more info. Or if you want to set up recurring donations to Street Sense please visit and click on “donate.”

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

DIRECTOR'S NOTE: Four Years of Changing Lives and Perceptions

In concept, four years seems like a long block of time: it’s your high school years or college days or a presidential term. But the last 48 months have flown by.

It seems like only a few weeks ago that Street Sense co–founder Ted Henson and I were waiting outside the offices of the National Coalition for the Homeless in a cold drizzle with a couple of bundles of papers and a box of bagels, hoping that at least one vendor would come by during the first two hours of Street Sense’s first day in print.

Although the course of events over the last four years seems so compressed, the contrast between where Street Sense was on that drizzly day and where it is now is phenomenal.

Compared to that let–down of our first morning, consider the first day of our Nov. 1, 2007, issue.
Thirty–four different vendors came by to purchase nearly 2,000 papers. Eight vendors even showed up before I got there at 8 a.m.

It’s easy to note the numerical differences in Street Sense then and now, especially over the course of the last year.

In the last year, Street Sense has
• increased the number of papers sold per month by 69%, from approximately 13,000 to 22,000
• raised the average number of vendors each month by 33% to 60 and
• tripled its staff to three people.

Four years ago, we started with 5,000 issues a month, 10 vendors and no paid staff.

While the numerical measurements are important, they are not what truly matters here at Street Sense. The achievements that really matter are the changes in our vendors’ lives and the impact of our news stories.

What matters is that vendor Jeffery McNeil came to Street Sense this summer with empty pockets and hardly any hope, and today he is in a corporate mentoring program and his self-confidence is sky high.

What matters is that the attitude and work ethic at Street Sense inspired vendor Martin Walker to go into a treatment program late this summer to get clean and that he is now working in the trucking industry.

What matters is that through Street Sense, vendor Moyo Onibuje discovered his hidden writing talent. Through a story about him in our paper, he was able to connect to family in England with whom he had not spoken in eight years.

What also matters is that the Street Sense article, “Slow Progress on D.C.’s Homeless Plan,” which cited dozens of unanswered calls to D.C. government officials about what they were doing on the 10-year plan to end homelessness, came out one week before Mayor Adrian Fenty announced he was taking action to increase affordable housing and shelter space.

What matters is that the article “Libraries: The De Facto Day Shelter” prompted the D.C. library system to properly train its staff to deal with homeless patrons.

What also matters is that Street Sense was the first to report on the closing of D.C. Village, the city’s only emergency family shelter, and the first to put the mayor’s promise of apartment-style housing for all the families on record.

These are the real accomplishments of the past year. While numbers matter, these personal and political stories are much more telling.

Such great accomplishments on the service and editorial sides of the paper could not have been possible without the support of our loyal readers and donors, nor without the wonderful volunteers and vendors of Street Sense.

Although our staff has increased three–fold in the last year, we still truly rely on our close network of supporters and volunteers to keep us afloat.

Thanks to everyone for making the last year so successful in many ways. I hope that in the next year Street Sense expands its accomplishments and successes even more and continues to empower the homeless and change public perceptions for the better.

In Memoriam: David Pike

David Pike, beloved Street Sense board member and volunteer, passed away suddenly on Nov. 5. I cannot express how much we at Street Sense will miss his insight, dedication, humor and positive attitude.

After David retired from a 40-year career in journalism covering the likes of the Supreme Court, he dedicated his time to the more humble matters of homelessness. He started helping out with Street Sense in early 2005 as a volunteer editor, and soon transitioned into volunteering at the office. At the beginning of last year, David joined the Street Sense board of directors.

David came to the office faithfully every Tuesday morning and was known in the office for his helpfulness, his meticulous editing, his Panama hat, his gently rasping voice and his vegetarian diet. David also had a very dry sense of humor. Whether it was a wry comment about August Mallory’s lack of punctuation or an imitation of Conrad Cheek Jr.’s sales pitch, David always knew when to chime in at the right moment.

As he helped out in the office for nearly three years, he got to know many vendors quite well, and had a vested interest in a handful of them.

For the past year, David would purposely arrive about 10 minutes early to his office shift so he could spend time talking to Charles Nelson, the vendor at Metro Center, before coming in. And when Charles was having medical problems, David searched online to find him the appropriate assistance.

As a board member, David will be remembered for his self-effacing manner, his insight and his true commitment to our mission.

I always appreciated that David would carefully read over all the meeting notes and come to meetings armed with questions.

At board meetings, David would often share his Street Sense office experiences and speak on behalf of vendors.

David was also responsible for editing most of our grant proposals and always added his two cents along with many corrections.

What I loved about David, though, was that anyone who talked to David for more than five minutes would inevitably find out about Street Sense.

David was truly passionate about Street Sense and he spread the word whenever he got the chance.

In fact, he was planning to marry his longtime partner Caroline Gabel at the end of November, and in place of wedding gifts, was asking friends and relatives to make a donation to Street Sense.

But David was more than just a board member, volunteer and advocate.

He was also a dear friend. During the summer, when Street Sense was going through a rough time with staffing issues, David was there with an ear to listen and wise words of advice.

We swapped stories about cats, joked about marriage, and got to know each other’s families.

David Pike left his mark on Street Sense and helped make the organization and the world a better place through his efforts.

--Laura Thompson Osuri

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Street Sense mourns David Pike, friend and advocate

David Pike, a beloved Street Sense volunteer and a member of the board of directors, died last night after a heart attack. David was a huge asset to Street Sense, not only as a board member but as a volunteer and general advocate for the paper over the last three years. I cannot even express how much his insight, humor, dedication and overall upbeat attitude will be missed.

We are still in shock at the Street Sense office. Please keep David's family, especially his fiancee Caroline, in your thoughts and prayers.

-- Laura Thompson Osuri

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Arsonist Targets Miriam's Kitchen

On Oct. 30, at around 3 a.m., an arsonist set fire to a large church room where Miriam’s Kitchen, a homeless services provider, serves meals to the homeless in northwest D.C. Police are investigating.

“Apparently, someone had broken into a window in our dining area...[used] some kind of accelerant like gasoline and lit it,” Scott Schenkelberg, executive director of Miriam’s Kitchen, said.

A sprinkler system in the building had put out most of the blaze by the time firefighters arrived.

"Fortunately, there was relatively minor damage,” Schenkelberg said. “[There was] fire damage and three inches of water from the sprinkler system.”

The kitchen opened its doors about 15 minutes late the next morning as a result of the fire.

“[We’ve] been able to adapt,” Schenkelberg said. Miriam’s Kitchen will try to repair damages outside normal hours of operation to minimize disruption to program guests, he said.

There are no suspects at this time. “Obviously, it’s somebody that needs help,” Schenkelberg said.

Miriam’s Kitchen’s services include breakfast, case management and social services for the chronically homeless.

By Desiree Perez

DIRECTOR'S NOTE: Setting the Course

By Laura Thompson Osuri

From the start Street Sense has been a very grassroots organization, getting input from the homeless people we serve, making decisions on a consensus basis, and taking our successes and challenges one at a time. Consequently, besides a very rough business plan at the start and annual budgets in subsequent years, Street Sense has done very little long–term planning in its four–year existence.

But on Monday, Oct. 24, Street Sense entered the strange new world of strategic planning. For five hours in a very warm conference room, the board and staff of Street Sense tossed around their ideas for the future of our newspaper.

With the help of giant Post–Its, Sharpie markers, a flip chart, and several large and small group discussions, we determined our top goals for the organization.

The goals for 2008 and early 2009 include:

• Hiring an advertising sales manager and formalizing the ad sales program for vendors

• Forming partnerships with other providers to assist vendors in finding jobs, housing, treatment and other help

• Expanding the marketing of Street Sense through public service announcements and other advertising

• Developing the board of directors, including creating committees, adding members and improving transparency

• Expanding content to include suburban news and expanding the vendor network into the suburbs through partnerships with service providers in outlying areas

• Improving internal technology and developing the Web site to make it more interactive for readers and more beneficial to vendors

• Hiring a community development director and editorial assistant

While this planning process made me quite excited about the future, it also showed me there is a lot of work to be done to build a strong foundation for the organization. In the past four years, we have come a long way toward developing a structure for this foundation.

With a strong foundation hopefully in place by 2010, Street Sense will be prepared to creatively expand its outreach by providing vendors with micro–financing options and scholarships, encouraging local teachers to integrate our articles and poetry into their classrooms and holding regular community forums on issues related to poverty.

I am very much looking forward to the next few years of developing Street Sense and building it into an innovative organization that will go even further in accomplishing our mission of empowering the homeless and educating the public. And I definitely think we have the momentum and the commitment from the board, staff, vendors and volunteers to make all of our goals a reality.

So plan to be wowed by Street Sense in the next few years. If you have some ideas of your own for the organization, please share them. Though we might have crossed into the flip chart–world of corporate planning, we have definitely not forgotten our (grass)roots. As always, we seek –– and appreciate — input and feedback from all who are affected by Street Sense.

E–mail any ideas or comments you have on the Street Sense strategic plan to