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For Homeless Staff, A Paper's Big News

Kevin Robinson, 51, a vendor for Street Sense, purchases a paper.
Kevin Robinson, 51, a vendor for Street Sense, purchases a paper. (Lois Raimondo - Twp)
By Chantel Harley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007

A three-year-old newspaper, written and sold by homeless men and women in the District as part of a mission to help them earn income, has increased production from once to twice a month.

Beginning last week, Street Sense, which explores issues related to poverty, homelessness and other social problems, will be published on the first and 15th of each month. Homeless vendors sell the newspaper for $1 and keep 75 cents from each sale.

"There's been a great demand for this change," said Laura Thompson Osuri, the newspaper's executive director. "Sales are always high for the first two weeks, but usually around the middle of the month we see sales drop because the content in the paper is old news."

Last fall, Osuri and the Street Sense board of directors decided to increase publication in February 2007, with the motto "Two by 2/2." In preparation, they planned fundraisers, applied for grants and solicited donations.

"The grants didn't really come through, so we were dependent upon our readers and the public," Osuri said.

The two fundraisers, a benefit concert and a silent auction, brought in about $12,000. Donations generated $34,406.

With the increase in production, change is imminent. Vendors and volunteers will be encouraged to write more, and Osuri is looking to hire an editorial manager. The anticipated change already has generated more interest from individuals seeking to become vendors.

"In the past two weeks, we've had about 10 new people contact us about becoming vendors," said Jesse Smith Jr., the vendor manager. "We have about 50 vendors now and are looking to expand in other areas outside the city, in the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia."

That's about five times the number of vendors used to distribute the paper when it hit city streets in November 2003.

In his fairly new position, Smith acts as a liaison between the vendors and Osuri. He helps vendors find jobs, write résumés and seek counseling. With help from Street Sense, 27 percent of the vendors have started full- or part-time jobs, and 14 percent have moved into housing, Osuri said.

Chris Sellman, a vendor and volunteer, said Smith has helped him identify his talents.

"I'm the computer geek around here, helping with hardware problems and upgrades," said Sellman. "Jesse helped me realize I have a talent, and I should be using it. So I'll be putting ads in our paper for my computer services, and hopefully I will get some calls from our readers."

Sellman wants to use the money he earns from his business and Street Sense sales to rent a room or a one-bedroom apartment. He also plans to attend computer school.

Street Sense vendors make an average of $30 to $60 a day. The paper's circulation has reached 13,000 monthly, which includes street sales and subscribers. Osuri predicts that the increase in production will yield positive results.

"Not only does it provide us with the ability to earn a little more money, but we can get our messages to the public to help us fight the plight of homelessness," said Brenda Lee-Wilson, a vendor and newspaper volunteer. "It's difficult at times, though, especially when you see other people panhandling and passersby who would rather give to the begging than those who are trying to earn a living."

The newspaper was first published by the D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless, but has since become an independent operation. Since the first issue, the 20-page newspaper has grown to include more news stories, features, poems, editorials, photography and puzzles, much of which is produced by the homeless. Soon, the newspaper will publish comics.

"We're going further, honey," said Francine Triplett, a vendor and volunteer. "Soon we'll be like the City Paper or The Washington Post. We'll have something new every day, and our readers will be thinking, 'What are they writing about now?' "

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