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.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mary Otto

On the day back in June, as I walked here to Street Sense for my job interview, I was feeling pretty homeless myself.

The downsizing at the Washington Post, where I had worked as a reporter for seven years, had been a shattering experience.

The knowledge that mine was one of thousands of journalism jobs being cut throughout the country was little consolation. The daily newspaper is dying, everyone says. Yet newspapers have been my life for more than 20 years. The first time I held a reporter’s notebook in my hand, I knew, with a bolt of sudden certainty, who I was, and why I was born. I was put here to write people’s words and to tell their stories.

I heard them everywhere, amid blizzards and crime scenes, in hospitals and shelters, in town halls and in the halls of Congress.

I looked, I listened and I wrote. And in those years of reporting, in spite of shyness, insecurity and a host of personal faults and quirks, I managed to create a life for myself, and to find a voice for myself and a place in the world.

With the loss of my job, all that seemed like it was being torn away. I’m sure my feelings are not unique. I ache for the other workers across the country whose jobs are vanishing, whose hearts are breaking, as I sit and write this.

And I only hope that they manage to find new workplaces where they can be reborn, as I did.

For me, my sense of grief and loss started to make a little sense when I read the online advertisement for the editor’s position at Street Sense.

I’ll never forget arriving at the Church of the Epiphany and climbing the stairs to the Street Sense office, peering into the tiny, threadbare newsroom.

A homeless newspaper! Could I do this?
“Everything I have ever done has helped prepare me for this,” I assured Ted and Laura. I got the job.

But there have been many times since that I have been reminded of the obvious, that nothing could have really prepared me for this work.

Homelessness is terrible, dehumanizing, chaotic, exhausting. Yet the people who come here and write these stories, help lay out these pages and sell these papers manage to triumph over hardship every day. Their talent, courage and fierce persistence is utterly humbling.

I hope my life is long enough to gain the combination of patience, wisdom, compassion and imagination to truly do my job as their editor.

In the meantime, I do my imperfect best. And every day here at the Church of the Epiphany offers another epiphany or two.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Five Crazy Years on a Grassroots Mission

Five years, half a decade - wow! Back on the dreary morning of Nov. 15, 2003 when our first issue was released, I could not have even imagined that Street Sense would be going so strong and would have grown so much in just five years. I think I have said something similar on every anniversary of Street Sense, but its worth repeating as the success of Street Sense continuously amazes me.

But it’s not just the success that amazes me, but that we have done so staying true to a foundation that me and cofounder Ted Henson established even before this scrappy little paper had a name. The first tenet was that the content of the newspaper would present as objective articles as possible and would not advocate for one issue or another.

Over the course of five years, this foundation has helped Street Sense become known as a reliable and credible news source when it comes to issues related to poverty and homelessness. Several news outlets – including NBC4 and WAMU - now call us when they want background on a homelessness topic or if they want a homeless person to talk to for an article or news segment. Additionally, over the last year our articles have been reprinted in a handful of smaller publications including the Pew Charitable Trust’s Election Weekly.

The second tenet we had was that Street Sense would not simply use homeless people to sell papers (or “pimp the homeless” as many terminated vendors like to say) but that they would be involved at every level and we would try at every level to help them to get off the streets.

Most Street Sense vendors now view the organization as more than just an employer, but as a caring, family-like environment where they can not only get help but also get respect. We currently have one vendor on the board of directors, two vendors that train new recruits, three vendors that help in the office, and dozens more that write and help with the production of the paper. And over the last year we started connecting vendors to readers looking for help with odd jobs and we are working to better train our vendors to transfer their newspaper sales skills into other sales jobs.

Holding true to these foundations, Street Sense has been able to grow from a project of the National Coalition for the Homeless with a dozen vendors and five thousand issues a month to a stable nonprofit with three staff members, 80 active vendors and more than 30,000 issues each month. And in the last year alone the growth of vendors and newspaper is astounding and has already passed our expectations with still two months left in the year. And in just a few short months we will print our millionth copy!

This growth is not because of expensive strategic marketing, recruiting or promotion plans. But it simply came through the grassroots word of mouth promotion from reader to new reader, donor to potential donor and vendors to vendor recruits. Street Sense indeed began as a very grassroots effort. And holding true to our editorial and vendor tenets, we are and will remain a very grassroots organization.

Thanks to all our readers, donors, volunteers and – especially - vendors for contributing to Street Sense’s success and growth over the last five years. And please continue to spread the word over the next five years.

I can hardly imagine a decade of Street Sense in Washington D.C. But as the first five went by lightning fast, Street Sense will be in the double digits before we know it.

-- Laura Thomspon Osuri

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Intern Insight: Homelessness - A Loss for Words

by Brittany Aubin

A professor once started his creative memoir class by admonishing students to write the story they thought they would never tell anyone. Five years later, this is the column I thought I would never write.

I joined Street Sense six months ago. I passed through the church door as a second–semester senior, hoping to gain valuable clips and salve a guilty conscience. I was still reeling from the disconnect between my own American University privilege and the lives of the city’s 6,000 homeless residents. I could write about that now, about how Street Sense bridges the divide of dignity between classes, placing faces, personalities and stories to the oft–avoided homeless population.

I could write about conversations with Jeff McNeil, with Moyo Onibuje, with Cliff Carle. Or moments of girl talk with Patricia Jefferson, Patty Smith and Alicia Jones. Or the kindness Orin Andrus shows for his cat, Cuddles. Or the smooth sales talk of Conrad Cheek Jr.

That column would be easy to write. It would also be easy to read. Because you’ve read it before. It’s the homelessness paradigm we feel most comfortable in.

Yet, nothing about being without a home is comfortable. Not the park benches or shelters. Not dehumanization or degradation. And the paradigms shouldn’t be, either.

Homeless, homelessness, homeless residents, homeless person – these words litter my articles at Street Sense. Nothing could be more literal. A coded adjective or noun that strips its article of identity and hope, wrapping gray woolen blankets across an objective black and white typeface. It is a panhandling addition to the lexicon, asking readers to throw out sympathy like spare coins into a cup.

I have come to hate this meaning that lurks behind the word ‘homeless.’ Yet, these two simple syllables have infiltrated my conversations and my paragraphs, a semantic necessity that causes me to reduce 6,000 unique individuals to a collective unsheltered entity.

‘Homeless’ when breathed into conversation among polite company often elicits a similar response, most like the one people reserve for babies and puppies. Creatures devoid of highly individual personalities and entirely dependent on the kindness of wiser, sophisticated humans for sustenance and protection.

At a recent Interagency Council on Homelessness meeting, activist Cheryl Barnes bristled at the term “chronically homeless.” Noting her own history of homelessness, Barnes resented the label as too clinical, too hopeless. This term may power policy and aid advocacy, but it does little to alter the anonymity and powerlessness of the individuals to whom it applies.

This hate for ‘homeless’ with its gray–blanketed innuendos complicated my editorial internship. I have probed my articles and actions for pity like a doctor pressing for tumors beneath the flesh. I know there were moments when I pitied and moments when I lost hope. Moments when I wanted to ban these people and the narrow jail of a word they were pushed into from my otherwise uncomplicated existence.

Still, for now, a continued dependence on ‘homeless’ is necessary, if only because no other term exists. It is not within a journalist’s power to redefine. That task lies in the community itself, both those who are domiciled and those who are not.

For me, the word will remain deep and dark; full of a shame and a tinge of guilt and a quiet desperation and a bitter slap across the face of society. My parting wish for Street Sense readers is that my reporting has brought a fuller understanding of ‘homeless’ and a challenge to the dominant framework in which this issue is enclosed.

I didn’t want to write this column. I didn’t want to acknowledge my own shortcomings or, worse, the shortcomings of words. As an activist and a journalist, I see a world whose justice is shaped and secured by words. Our language is powerful, rich, and wide. Its failure here scares me. In this, there is perhaps the only nuance where ‘homeless’ succeeds – it makes me uncomfortable.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

From the Director's Desk: Returning to Work After Maternity Leave

by Laura Thompson Osuri

Wednesday, June 4 was my first official day in the Street Sense office after having a baby 10 weeks ago. While I and my baby boy, Isaac, had stopped by several times during my maternity leave, this was my first time there without him, and this was my first time since he was born that I was committed to focusing my day’s energy on work, not taking care of a baby.

I was not happy the morning of June 4. I cried as I left Isaac with my mother–in–law. I knew Isaac would be alright as he was in good hands but I was not sure if I would be alright. I have grown quite attached to this little man since he arrived in my life on March 26, and was not ready to leave him all day. Several weeks before June 4, I had already started working on Street Sense stuff from home and had gotten quite comfortable with checking e–mails and making a few phone calls while he was napping. Being in the office all day was quite a different story.

But when I got in the office there were immediately several other things to think about: planning for the fundraiser, paying bills, checking in on grants, organizing intern projects and a variety of other tasks. And it was actually nice to be around all the craziness of the office and see all the vendors again. And surprisingly, I fell right back into my multi–tasking Street Sense routine, and I found myself working just like I did before March 26, as if things had not change at all in my life.

But things have definitely changed. And I knew they would but I did not realize by how much. Before having Isaac, I thought that after 10 weeks of maternity leave I would be itching to go back to Street Sense and continue being a productive member of the workforce. But honestly, I don’t feel that way at all. Instead I have gained a new–found respect and envy for stay–at–home moms.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not going to abandon Street Sense. I am still fully committed to it and its growth and success. But now after nearly five years of giving my all to Street Sense, I have something else more important to watch grow and succeed.

So I am not really sure where I am going with this editorial rambling. I was hoping the point of the editorial would be that I was dreading going back but when I did, I realized how much I missed Street Sense. But that is not the case. The case really is that I am conflicted and confused. What I thought were my ideals and priorities have been turned on their heads, and where I used to be notoriously strong and decisive, I am now weepy mess when I think about the future.

I want to put all my energy into making Isaac happy and healthy but at the same time I feel obligated to Street Sense and all that I have helped to create. So I guess I just have to figure out that balance, as I am sure millions of working moms before me have. Who knew being a mom and the executive director of Street Sense would be so confusing?

Friday, May 30, 2008

From the Editor

Dear readers,

This issue marks my last week with Street Sense. Effective June 2, I’m resigning from my position to start an exciting new chapter as a full-time mother. Thank you to the vendors, volunteers and readers who have in the last year helped grow our paper’s biweekly circulation to nearly 12,000 and practically doubled our traffic at I’m confident Street Sense can only continue to get stronger and better from here.

Koki joined Street Sense as editor in chief in June 2007.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Different Sort of Privilege

by Sarah Nydick Cheshire

I guess you could call me privileged. I go to a private school, live in a lofty suburban house, eat healthy and go to the dentist regularly. I wouldn’t say I was handed life on a silver platter, but it’s not as if I go to bed hungry.

At my small Quaker high school in Durham, N.C., I am distinguished by my peers as "the political girl,” or sometimes even “the annoyingly political girl.” I am the one who can be found organizing lunchtime vigils for victims of genocide, posting flyers about some peace march or another, or obstinately telling a guy off for a supposed sexist comment. I guess you could say that I am your average “privileged white girl who wants to change the world.”

My school allots a small period of time at the end of the year for students to participate in internships at occupations that interest them.

When it came to organizing mine, naturally, I wanted to do something political. I e-mailed a few social justice coalitions and human rights organizations, all of which either didn’t respond to me at all or e-mailed me back saying something along the lines of “Thanks for your interest, sweetheart. Come back when you’re in college, okay?”

I came across Street Sense as a last resort; a product of desperate late-night Web surfing a week before my internship proposal was due. But the vibe I got from them was different. Koki Smith, the editor of Street Sense, called me back almost immediately and seemed to be at least borderline enthusiastic at the prospect of having two high school students hang around.

Several weeks later, my friend Naomi and I buzzed the intercom into Street Sense just 45 minutes after stepping off the train at Union Station, heavy duffel bags afoot and sweating in the mid-May heat.

“Hey, are you guys vendors?” A lady opened the door and led us up the stairs into the main office.

“No, interns actually.”

Over the next couple of days, we answered the door, organized the office and, most significantly, got to hear the stories of vendors coming in and out of the office.

Before coming to Street Sense, whenever I would walk past a homeless person on the street, I would either downgrade his life as something worthy of pity or see him as the tragic product of some larger-scale political issue.

None of the people I met at Street Sense were in any way the “helpless and disillusioned by society” image of homeless that I expected. Each one had a different story, a different ambition and a different reason for being where they are.

The only real difference I found between myself and the vendors at Street Sense did not have to do with differences in personality or social surroundings, but with my own label as “privileged.” They don’t have that status on their side.

After my experience at Street Sense, I am working toward putting a face with my politics and seeing homeless people not for the identity of the system that has failed them, but for their own identities as people.

Sarah Nydick Cheshire is a sophomore at Carolina Friends School in Durham, N.C. She and Naomi Eliza, also a sophomore, recently spent two days volunteering at Street Sense.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

From the Editor: Take Two

by Kaukab Jhumra Smith

We’ve received a number of e-mails, phone calls and personal reactions from readers and vendors about our coverage of drugs and homelessness in the April 16 and April 30 issues of Street Sense. I wrote about some early reactions in my last column (“Cracking It Open,” 4/30) and we are printing several representative letters on these pages.

However, I think it’s worth another short note to document the distinction in many vendors’ heads between our decision to publish the stories by Brittany Aubin and the decision to publish close-up photographs of a man smoking a crack pipe (4/16) and of a pair of hands loading a crack pipe (4/30). For many vendors, the photographs are the problem, particularly on the front page of the paper. They were taken in downtown D.C. by a volunteer, Dan Wilkinson, who spent an hour and a half with the subject, disclosed his assignment with Street Sense and received his consent to photograph him. The man told Dan he was not homeless but came to the area near Franklin shelter to buy and use crack.

I’ve listened to enough offended vendors now to understand that these photos could serve as a trigger for individuals already struggling with a substance abuse problem. And while I apologize for any inadvertent harm the photos may have caused, I don’t know if I would change my original decision. Because I also received a call from a woman last week, who thanked us for printing photos that helped her identify the instruments she had seen lying around different places. “You have no idea how many families out there you are helping,” she said.

Thanks to everyone who shared an opinion. Your perspectives strengthen Street Sense into a paper that fosters debate and understanding on difficult community issues.

Confessions of a Volunteer

by Colleen Dolan

Unlike most Street Sense volunteers, it was neither my selflessness nor my willingness to sacrifice my free time that got me here. Contrarily, I was brought here to satisfy a basic course requirement. That, and the fact that I wanted to expand my social life.

I am a first–year student at George Washington University. This semester, I signed on to take a “Writing for Social Change” course – a course I registered for based on the fact that it did not meet on Fridays. For the class, we were to spend 20 hours at a community organization which, I figured after painstaking debate, would be a small sacrifice for having Thursday nights free to expand my social life.

Day 1 of the class proved to be a rude awakening, however. Participants in my small seminar went around the room discussing community service they had already participated in.

“President of the community service club.”

“I went to Africa with Seeds of Peace.”

“I raised thousands to feed children in poor countries.”

Suffice it to say, I was in way over my head.

It was on this day that we chose the organizations we would work with. As a declared journalism major, I was in luck and immediately signed on to work with Street Sense.

It was my first meeting with Koki, editor of Street Sense, which made me slightly unsure of what I was in for. She asked about my history in journalism and I gave her a brief description of working on my high school newspaper, slipping in the fact that I had a few stints on ABC–TV in New York. Naturally, she asked how I had managed to be on arguably the biggest news channel in New York City. I gave a response that has become almost mechanical, explaining that my parents work as TV journalists. But the usual response of “Getting into the family business?” or “Really? What are their names?” didn’t come.

Needless to say, I was surprised but also rather relieved. In fact, it was this implication that I needed to prove myself that led me to agree to come into the office six hours a week, rather than the one hour required by my course. This was a decision for which I was immediately grateful.

Once I walked into the office, I knew this would be an experience entirely different than what I had anticipated. Usually an outgoing person, I was rendered unsure of what to say in front of the extroverted vendors and volunteers.

I spent my early hours at Street Sense quietly running toward the stairs when the doorbell rang and issuing vendors their papers. I was taken aback by their “Hey pretty girl, how are you?” attitude, and unsure of what to say.

After my first few weeks, I realized my nerves were getting the better of me. At this point, I began making a clear effort to know the different vendors – quickly being able to say hello to them by name as I greeted them at the door.

The vendors were genuinely unlike anything I expected. On a busy afternoon, Conrad Cheek Jr. took the paper sign–out sheet from me. “Look, I’ll show you how to do it faster,” he said, proceeding to teach me a superior way to give out large numbers of papers. Jeffery McNeil asked me for advice on what to put on posters and in his articles, while cheerfully telling me about the job interview he had later that day. Brittany Aubin, the intern I worked side–by–side with on Wednesdays, wrote article upon article, fixed Web site glitches and then jetted out just in time for evening classes at American University. I was truly surrounded by remarkable, exceptional people.

After receiving only a B– on the paper for my writing class (on which I had slaved away endlessly), I found myself on the verge of giving up the class. It was only my time at Street Sense that encouraged me to reconsider.

With classes now ending, I’m not looking for an excuse to get out of this last week at Street Sense, which will not count toward any class credit. Rather, I am looking forward to sitting in the office a little longer and getting to know the intelligent, charismatic vendors and volunteers a bit better before saying good–bye.

Friday, May 2, 2008

From the Editor: Cracking It Open

by Kaukab Jhumra Smith

Things got a bit heated at the Street Sense office recently.

At least three vendors – Francine Triplett, Conrad Cheek Jr. and Alicia Jones – were offended at the photo essay, “The D.C. Streets: The Other Side,” that Street Sense ran as a color spread in its April 16 issue.

The photo essay, by volunteer photographer Dan Wilkinson, was the result of many hours spent patiently cultivating sources downtown. It included an extreme close up of a man smoking crack near Franklin shelter on 13th and K streets, NW. Only the man’s lips and part of his moustache were in the frame; the focus was on his hands and on the glass pipe held to his mouth.

Francine was upset because the photograph played into a stereo-type, she said: “People already think that homeless people do nothing but drugs.” (Dan says the man told him he is not homeless and does not live at Franklin but only goes to the area to buy and smoke crack.)

Alicia said there were plenty of positive things in the city that the photographer could have focused on instead.

Other objections were that the photograph was unsuitable for children and would upset teachers and parents who use the paper as a teaching tool on social matters.

However, the same issue of Street Sense features a front-page editorial by vendor Jeffery McNeil, “Drug Use Cuts Across Class and Race,” which argues that drug addiction can’t be blamed just on the homeless or the poor. Taken together, I think Jeffery’s editorial and Dan’s photos provide an interesting counterpoint and illustrate our mission of “elevating voices and public debate.”

Other Street Sense vendors have actively helped guide our reporting during the weeks that reporter Brittany Aubin and photographer Dan Wilkinson have explored the subject of drugs and homelessness for our April 16 and April 30 issues.

“People need to know why the shelter system isn’t working and why transitional housing isn’t working,” one vendor said, pointing out how hard it is to escape addiction when drug dealers frequent the spaces right outside shelters. He wants readers to understand.

Meanwhile, Brittany has faced similar objections during her work on this issue’s cover story on the obstacles to recovery for homeless addicts. “I have consistently faced hurdles to getting information, or even maintaining a conversation,” Brittany wrote recently.

“Despite working from tips given by vendors, I couldn’t help but feel at most a reluctance, and at worst a hostility, to stories that could perpetuate stereotypes of drugs and homelessness from both home-less individuals and the advocates serving them,” she said.

It’s worth repeating that Street Sense editorial policy, laid out on page 2, is to reflect a multitude of perspectives on poverty. Street Sense does not exist to “sanitize and castrate” community issues, as Brittany eloquently says, or to project “a shiny, grateful and presentable image of homelessness.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself, so I’ll let Brittany complete her thoughts.

“As a news outlet, I believe Street Sense has an obligation to present the fullest, most complex view of issues as possible. This cannot happen in a framework that permits only one archetype of a homeless individual,” she writes. “Homelessness should not merely be unacceptable when it happens to the ideal archetype – to the single mom, to the repentant former playboy, to the elderly woman forced from a gentrified home.”

She continues: “I have spent hours at Franklin Square Park, I have talked to city officials, I have asked vendors. I have called shelters and surveyed service providers. I have pored over studies and crunched numbers ... I do believe that it is right to communicate what I view. For many, this investigation has hurt feelings, or seemed intrusive or to have served narrow sensationalistic interests. To that, I can empathize, but not apologize. I sincerely hope that others will step forward to add the complexities of their viewpoints to my own.”

We welcome your comments at

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

From the Chair of Board: The Quickening

by Ted Henson

In my first column as chairman of the Street Sense
board of directors, I want to emphasize the importance
of visualizing where we want to be in context
of where we’ve come from.

I moved to Washington in August 2003 for two reasons:
to follow my future wife Rebecca and to start a street newspaper.
Those first few months in Washington were an epic
time. Initially, we were a ragtag all–volunteer project of the
National Coalition for the Homeless, with an operating
budget of zero and a desk in the corner of a room that was
shared by three people as its only office space.

Laura Thompson (before she was Osuri) came to the office
on a daily basis, with business plan in hand and mock–
ups of the paper. Her boundless energy and leadership are
what guided those early days. Michael Stoops, from NCH,
brought me to D.C. and has been a steady and loyal advisor
to the paper ever since.

Vendors such as August Mallory, Fred Anderson, Conrad
Cheek Jr., Phillip Howard, James Davis, Bobby Buggs, Alvin
Dixon, Francine Triplett, Allen Jones and Leonard Cannady
put feet to concrete and papers on the corners. Writers like
David Hammond, Diane Rusignola, Fiona Clem, Gaby Coppola
and Carolyn Cosmos produced dynamite news stories
that the Post would have been lucky to run. And the list
of volunteers who helped Street Sense survive and grow is
nearly endless.

In a conversation that I had today with longtime vendor
Martin Walker, he mentioned that if he had a place to live
in, or at the very least a reliable alternative to wandering the
streets at night or keeping an open eye at a shelter, he would
be able to dedicate more of his energy to lifting himself out
of his current, unstable situation.

Martin’s comments relating where he wants to be came
more than a week after Mayor Fenty and his director of
the Department of Human Services, Clarence Carter, announced
plans to create a Housing First fund and create 400
units of supportive housing for the chronically homeless in
Washington. As various sides argue over the validity of the
Housing First strategy, I know from talking to Martin that an
apartment would be a godsend for him right about now.

While the City Council decides whether or not to approve
the mayor’s budget and to try something new, I feel it’s important
to take bold steps every so often and it’s good to
defer to those willing to make those leaps.

Organizationally, it is my goal as board president to help
Street Sense formalize its operations and to make it more
agile and equipped to service our staff and vendors. That
means practical changes such as creating stronger HR policies,
expanding services offered to vendors, and dedicating
more effort to advertising and fundraising. I look forward
to working with our board to making these things happen.
I also look at the attributes of our staff and core of vendors
and feel a sense of confidence in Laura’s leadership, Koki’s
editorial finesse, Rita’s passion and Larie’s ambition.

It seems appropriate to conclude with words spoken by
Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated 40 years ago
this month. In his “Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, given
the night before he was killed, King asks himself how he
would answer if God were to ask him which period in time,
out of all the ages, he would want to live in. Here is King:

“Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say,
‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of
the twentieth century, I will be happy.’ Now that’s a strange
statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The
nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around.
That’s a strange statement.

“But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough,
can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period
of the twentieth century in a away that men, in some
strange way, are responding –– something is happening in
our world.”

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What Our Readers Want

by Laura Thompson Osuri

After six weeks of vendors passing out yellow survey cards, our reader survey is complete.

From the look of it so far, with about 550 responses, Street Sense readers are evenly divided when it comes to age, income level and how long they have been reading the paper.

The only standout demographics are that we have more female readers (62%) than male, and – not surprisingly – the majority of our readers work for nonprofits (36%) or the government (27%).

Knowing the demographics our readers will be a huge help when it comes to selling advertising in the paper. Advertisers always want to know who they are going to be reaching and now we have up–to–date information on that. Surprisingly, however, little has changed since our first readers’ survey back in June 2006.

Our advertisers will also love to know that 80% of our customers are reading at least half the paper every time they buy it.

Aside from learning about reader demographics, the survey has helped us gain our readers’ input about the paper and its vendors. Nearly all customers buy the paper to support the vendors but about half of our customers also buy it to learn more about homeless issues.

It’s great to see that so many of D.C. area residents want to learn more about this often ignored topic. In the next year, we hope to do an even better job providing this information.

How we provide this information may very well change thanks to your feedback.
I was pleased to find out that the local news section is everyone’s favorite. Often times, I think that the news we are providing may be too depressing or repetitive and that readers may simply ignore it an turn to the moving poetry or amusing editorials.

But it seems people are interested in homelessness and poverty issues, no matter how many somber statistics and stories we report. As I suspected, the vendor profiles and poetry sections are also near the top of readers’ lists, with games and provider profiles falling at the bottom. Maybe it’s time to do away with the crossword and to run intriguing news – rather than fluffy profiles – on organizations helping the homeless.

The most surprising result, to me anyway, is that nearly half the readers think vendors should have “signs explaining the paper.” This is something a few vendors have tried on their own, but not something we have tried to institute organization–wide.

That may change, thanks to your suggestions. We also apparently need more vendors to pass out our brochures, and we can definitely get going on that right away.

Besides the suggestions on how our vendors can improve sales, I really appreciate all the written suggestions on how the organization can improve its outreach. The message from readers was clear: Street Sense needs to advertise.

Hopefully in the spring, you will be seeing public service announcements about Street Sense on and inside Metro buses, on the radio and on cable television.

Thanks to all those that responded to the reader survey. You can be assured your feedback will be put to good use! If you have any further suggestions, please don’t hesitate to contact us at

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Intern Insight: Coffee Break

By Brittany Aubin

Undoubtedly, some poor intern in this city is just now embarking on a semester–long affair with the office copy machine. For many young people, the allure of prestigious ID badges and K Street commutes almost eclipses the annoyance of days spent running coffee and crunching numbers.

It was partly an effort to avoid such a dreaded coupling that brought me to this position in Street Sense’s humble church office. For me, a senior majoring in international development and print journalism at American University, Street Sense seemed the perfect chance to combine news writing, social justice and empowerment.

While I have worked with homeless communities before, much of my knowledge comes from volunteerism, both in D.C. and as an exchange student in Chile. These opportunities were rewarding, but did little to address the deep–seated issues surrounding homelessness.

Seeing the advertisement for Street Sense online, I saw a chance to take my involvement one step further.

All of that brought me to this morning, my first day at Street Sense. Wedged between fellow commuters on the Metro bus, I fantasized of soon–to–come undercover features, intimate interviews and daring adventures as intrepid gumshoe reporter.

Only an hour in, I decided this job would be anything but predictable. Set up at my own little computer – complete with lime–green keyboard and mouse – I already had a list of tasks ahead of me. With stories to cover, photos to find and sources to track, a bit of mindless photocopying actually started to sound relaxing. Between e-mails and phone calls, I had a chance to meet some of the paper’s vendors, who drifted in and out of the office to buy more issues, attend meetings and just chat. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to welcome me to the team.

By noon, every stereotype I might have had about the homeless was gone and I was floored by the diversity of personality, race, gender and background that made up this little office. The roles of vendor, volunteer and friend seemed merged, with many vendors helping out and basically everyone knowing more about the paper’s operations than me. In fact, everyone seemed to know a little more about life than me. With conversations jumping from the origins of Valentine’s Day to what kind of root goes into root beer, I wondered how it was that anyone got any work done here at Street Sense.

But work I did. By the end of the day, I realized how different this internship would be from others I had in the past. Putting the finishing touches on the vendor survey charts for this issue, I knew that the numbers corresponded to the many new faces I had met today. Although quite used to sobering statistics, I couldn’t shake the fact that over half of our vendors were 51 or older. And even my math–challenged mind understood about 30% of vendors had been homeless for four years or more – about one–fifth of my 21–year–old life.

Making the abstract personal is an uncomfortable feeling. Returning with other tired commuters Friday evening, I may have appeared just another Red Line undergrad, dressed in freshly-bought business casual, departing at the Tenleytown stop. Returning to a comfy apartment with heat and well–stocked shelves.

And a newfound understanding of the inequalities of this city. It sure beats running coffee.

Brittany Aubin is a senior at American University and an intern with Street Sense through the spring.

Vendor Notes

By Laura Thompson Osuri

Superstar Students

I’d like to give a special thanks to Kellie Marsh and Jenn Dunseith from the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y., who came and volunteered in our office during the second week in January.

Not only were they a huge help at doing last-minute tasks to get the Jan. 9 issue out, they were key in getting our office organize and updated for the new year. Kellie and Jenn updated the story archive lists, sorted the donors list for 2007, and organized our archive of past issues.

And for one afternoon they went out and sold papers with vendor Mark Jones all about town. And while they said it was a struggle to sell the first few issues, in the end they said they had a great time.

New Interns

And speaking of help from college students, I would like to welcome our interns for the winter/spring semester. We have Brittany Aubin, a senior at American University with a double major in international studies and print journalism; Jessica Elliott, a junior at Lafayette College who is in D.C. for the Washington Semester at American University; and Mary Pat Abraham, a high school senior at the Howard Gardner School.
Brittany is in Wednesdays and Fridays helping with the editorial work, Jessica helps out Mondays and Tuesdays on the vendor side of things, and Mary Pat is in on Fridays doing a little of both.

Lee in the Kitchen

After 16 long weeks in the D.C. Central Kitchen culinary arts training program, vendor Lee Mayse graduated Jan. 22. Just a few days before graduation, he accepted a job offer at D.C. Public Schools.
Lee will be cooking at a cafeteria at one of the schools, though he does not know which one yet. Lee said the job offer was a true blessing from God, and that he is thrilled to start working as soon as possible.

Big–spending Customers

Jeffery McNeil wanted to thank a well–dressed male customer near Metro Center who gave him a card the other day, which held a big surprise. “I couldn’t believe it!” Jeffery said. “I opened the card later and there was a $50 bill.”

And our newest vendor Frank Reddick wanted to thank two customers yesterday who separately gave him $100 bills.

Frank got these donations during his first day at Street Sense while he was selling near Dupont Circle. He came back the next day ecstatic and anxious to get his new badge. And by the end of the day he was vendor #168 and had already sold 40 papers.

Our Oldest Vendor

On Feb. 3, our oldest vendor Charlie Mayfield gets a little older, turning 74. We wanted to congratulate Charlie on reaching this milestone while still going strong selling papers. You can often find Charlie selling at Union Station. He does not look a day over 60!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

TODAY: Your $10 Can Help Street Sense Win $10,000 From Facebook!

Join the Street Sense Facebook One-Day Donation Challenge on Jan. 10, 2008!

If Street Sense gets the most donors in one day – which on average is 60 donors – we will win $1,000 from Facebook.

And if Street Sense is in the top 13 for most donors during the course of this challenge – which right now is only 120 donors for the 13th place – then we win $10,000.

All we ask is you donate just $10 on Jan. 10 to Street Sense and pass along this note to 10 different people.

Here's how to donate:
- Go to and search for "Street Sense"
- Click on the donate link
- Enter the appropriate amount (it only has to be $10) and your info
- Click donate to complete

If you're not a Facebook member, all you have to do is join, which takes about 30 seconds to do, at

So remember: $10 on Jan. 10, and email 10 friends, to help Street Sense win $10,000.

Thank you for your support!