The holiday season that begins Thursday with Thanksgiving Day feasts in many American homes is often the only time of year that people pay much attention to the homeless and hungry. We buy someone a meal, slip a panhandler a buck or two, or spend a day volunteering at a soup kitchen. But a new newspaper in Washington, D.C., aims to put a human face on homelessness year-round, not just during the frigid months ahead.
August Mallory, 47, is one of the vendors who pays 30 cents a copy for the brand-new newspaper by, for, and about the homeless of Washington. Whenever he can coax someone into stopping to listen, and that's not often, as most people hurry past him, trying not to make eye contact, he has good luck selling the paper for the cover price of $1. He keeps the 70 cent profit.
The already raw day turns dark on McPherson Square, a stone's throw from the White House. The skies open, and Mr. Mallory, who was homeless for several months after losing his job but now strings part-time work together to put food in his mouth, grabs his sack of papers and scurries under a canopy to escape the deluge.
"Not every homeless person is a drug addict or a mental case. I've found a lot of homeless people to be very heartful and very giving people," he says.
"To get myself a bed.
"My empty stomach calls to me"
Vendors like August Mallory sign a code-of-conduct pledge agreeing to treat customers respectfully and not to sell Street Sense while drinking or taking drugs.
The paper contains first-person stories and poems by the homeless, updates on laws affecting them, simple recipes, and a list of shelters and food banks. It's published by volunteers at the National Coalition for the Homeless, whose cluttered offices in an aging brick building are a stone's throw from K Street, home of Washington's wealthiest law firms, lobbying groups, and trade associations.
Street Sense's 23-year-old co-editor, Ted Henson, was a longtime volunteer at a homeless shelter in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He has interrupted graduate studies in journalism to devote his energies to the homeless of the nation's capital. The product of a comfortable suburban family, he now lives on his savings.
Mr. Henson says the paper will not sugar-coat the realities of life on the street, or duck the perceptions that prompt passersby to snarl 'Hey, buddy, get a job!' "These people might actually have a job. A large majority of the homeless population is a working population. It's not the fact that they're lazy. It's not the fact that they're on drugs, or they're drunk, or they're just bums. These people are formerly government officials, college graduates, veterans. People just have a fall. Poverty's a cycle. To get a job you need a place to stay. To get a place to stay, you need a job. You need an address. And it's really hard for people to find a way to get back on their feet," he says.
"The homeless are part of you and me"
Street Sense's co-editor, 26-year-old Laura Thompson, comes from a privileged background in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has a full-time job at the trade newspaper American Banker but takes time to tutor homeless kids.
When she saw successful street newspapers in other cities, she helped sell the homeless coalition on the idea. "Most people who think of the homeless think of the, you know, guy standing on the corner, begging you for money. It's just the tip of the iceberg. There's a lot of families that are homeless. That's the fastest-growing population of homelessness. Just has to do with the economy. People can't afford a place to live. These people that are on the streets or in shelters are real people. You shouldn't think they're there because they are lazy or something like that. That's a lot of people's impression," she says. "And we're trying to humanize the homeless and show their struggles."
"In the park with these old friends of mine.
"Charlie and Tom draw their warmth from the sun,
"And Howard from sippin' his wine"
George Siletti, 47, has lived on the street for the better part of his adult life. He's spoken to school and civic groups, and now will write for Street Sense about his life, the chronic depression and sense of worthlessness, the drinking that he says stopped 13 years ago, the humanity of the men and women on the streets. You get so used to sleeping on the cold ground, Mr. Siletti says, that when he gets a night in a shelter, a comfortable bed feels so foreign that he spreads out a blanket on the floor.
"I've been sleeping on the [heating] grates, under business awnings. And then I was under a bridge for awhile, putting cardboard down, putting the blanket over the cardboard," he says. "It's difficult, you know, 'cause you don't know where you're going to sleep the next night. You have to numb yourself to the chill that goes through your bones sleepin' on the streets. And I don't mean numbing it with alcohol and drugs."
"Don't give 'em no money; they just spend it on beer"
"We can be scary, yes. But we're not all bad people. We have goals in life. We cry, we laugh, just like everybody else. How 'bout touching a human being's life? Talk to me. Say 'good morning' in the morning. Touch my life," says Mr. Siletti.
In the first issue of Street Sense, which the Coalition for the Homeless hopes to publish a minimum of once a month, poet Pierre Valdez Lewis writes about a homeless friend. "As you pass him on your way to work," he writes, "believe me, he knows that you pretended/ as you went upon your merry way/ that you didn't see his hand extended."