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