But unlike every other time he had stood outside of the grocery store on 14th Street in Northwest Washington for the past three years, Dudley had not a single newspaper to sell.
Dudley works for Street Sense Media, a nonprofit that publishes a newspaper focused on poverty and sold by people experiencing homelessness. On March 26, the newspaper suspended print publication for the first time in its nearly 20-year history because of coronavirus concerns. The shutdown cut off a vital resource for more than 100 Street Sense vendors like Dudley, who rely on selling the $2 newspaper for income.
After weeks of restlessness with no paper to sell, Dudley tried to return to his usual spot on 14th Street looking for donations. But it was not the same.
“I felt naked and empty without the paper,” said Dudley, who is staying with a friend in Northeast Washington. “Like I am begging or something.”
Across the world, street papers have suffered as a result of nationwide shutdowns. Not long ago, these papers served as lifelines for people experiencing homelessness, offering potential relief from economic hardship and social isolation.
Homeless people handed out newspapers on street corners in 35 countries — forging connections with neighbors and earning up to $1,500 a month, depending on the publication, location and schedule, according to the International Network of Street Papers.
But for the first time since the street paper movement began in the 1980s, the vast majority have ceased publication. Paper editors are fighting to keep their businesses alive while their vendors struggle to get through the days.
Street Sense Media has been a mainstay in the nation’s capital since 2003. The nonprofit does more than publish a newspaper every two weeks for vendors to sell. It also operates a case management program with weekly workshops to help people find permanent housing, jobs and health care.
As recently as the first week of March, 130 vendors had stood on corners or at Metro stations throughout the city, selling newspapers. They had relied on the organization for a routine, income and community.
But as the deadly coronavirus pandemic spread, Street Sense Media President Brian Carome had a difficult decision to make.
Carome feared stopping the presses would not only strip vendors of income but also leave an already vulnerable population even more susceptible to mental and physical health problems. But allowing vendors to keep selling papers placed them at risk for the coronavirus.
“We had to weigh the impossible,” he said of the weeks he spent agonizing over whether to keep printing the newspaper. “I kept asking myself if stopping publication was going to cost someone their life.”
His board of directors, his best friend from college and finally his daughter urged him to stop printing the paper. Carome kept hoping there would be another way, but eventually a dramatic falloff in sales made the decision for him. In the first 2½ weeks of March, newspaper sales dropped by 50 percent compared with the same period last year.
“It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make,” he said.
Carome announced the shutdown via email in the early hours of March 26. He then waited outside of his office building — in the Church of the Epiphany on G Street — starting at 5 a.m. to break the news to vendors without Internet access.
“I couldn’t believe it, but at the same time I already knew it was coming,” Dudley said of the moment that, still groggy in his bed, he checked his phone and saw Carome’s message. “I tell people this is the best job I have ever had, and I miss it every day.”
Dudley found Street Sense Media on a walk five years ago, shortly after he lost his job at a local restaurant and his place to live.
“I wanted to get with Street Sense to make up for anything bad I had done,” he said. “It’s so easy to do the wrong thing just to survive, but I would rather do the right thing and get just a little.”
Every day before 8 a.m., Dudley would show up to his spot near the Trader Joe’s, normally in a sports jersey and always with a stack of newspapers. He would write for the paper, too, penning rap songs and poems about everything from mental health to the small wonders of Christmas. His charisma and skill soon caught the attention of many residents living in the gentrified area, who would wait in line to greet Dudley and buy a paper.
“He’s one of the easiest people to talk to that I’ve met,” said David Liddle, a 30-year-old pediatrician who lives on 14th Street. “You can tell every day that he loves what he does.”
Liddle and his wife, Rachel von Waldow, had celebrated with Dudley when his poetry book, “My Science Project,” was published last year thanks to a Trader Joe’s customer. They had worried alongside him when he temporarily lost housing a year ago, and again when a collapsed lung sent him to the hospital for two weeks.
“It is easy to think that the reason somebody may not have a regular job is because they aren’t trying,” von Waldow said. “But Ron really wants to work hard — it defines his character. It just hasn’t worked out for him.”
Liddle had given Dudley a box of masks and gloves in the first week of March, and Dudley wore the protective gear to work every day. But it did not matter. As the lines at Trader Joe’s grew longer and spaced apart, his sales sputtered.
Though Street Sense has stopped printing papers, it is still serving the community. Before the coronavirus shutdowns, Lissa Ramsepaul, clinical director at Street Sense Media, fielded 90 case management clients a month. Now she sees more than 50 people each week who need help applying for stimulus checks and food stamps or attending workshops on mental health. At the workshops, desks are now spaced 10 feet apart.
“This is the most scared I have ever felt for our clients, and I have been working in this field for over 20 years,” said Ramsepaul, who is herself immunocompromised. “I am scared for myself too, but this is my community. I don’t think I could live with myself if I wasn’t here working.”
On the news side, the gears are still turning. Vendors have dropped off more than 19 news articles, essays, poems and videos in the past two weeks alone, and editors have pushed out three online editions since the pandemic hit.
The organization asked its readers to donate to vendors through its phone app. It also is asking for donations to an emergency fund, meant to act as a stopgap for those unable to make rent or buy food. The organization has raised more than $82,000 for the fund and the case management program in recent weeks, but it might not be enough.
Street Sense Media ended its 2019 fiscal year with an operational deficit of over $60,000 after a significant donation and two grants fell through. If the economic downturn continues, Carome says it will be a challenge to keep the organization running in the same way next year.
Carome has received $10,000 from the Greater Washington Community Foundation and has applied for grants through Facebook and Google. He has not yet applied for the Paycheck Protection Program or other federal loans because he wants to avoid the risk of taking on any debt.
“It is my sincere hope that we find a way to take care of those who need it most,” Carome said. “Art builds community, and for these people, it can be a difference between life and death.”
Dudley had felt discouraged the Monday he returned to 14th Street without newspapers to sell, but he decided to go back the next day to see his neighborhood family. As the store opened, he stood near the Trader Joe’s sign with his face barely visible under a hat, sunglasses, mask and red bandanna. The bounce in his step and his signature peace signs to his regulars let customers know their friend was back.
“It was so good to see Ron again,” said von Waldow, who was touched to receive a text from Dudley asking if she was doing okay. “He is a part of this neighborhood and we missed him.”
Dudley brought copies of his poetry book with him that day — sanitized and in layers of wrapping — in the hope that he could sell them for a few extra dollars. He was used to at least $300 a week in newspaper sales, but now all he has to depend on are donations. His federal stimulus check arrived on Wednesday, but he has had trouble cashing it with an expired ID. By the time the Department of Motor Vehicles reopens, he might “have a gray beard,” he joked.
Dudley spent four hours at Trader Joe’s that Tuesday. When he left, he had sold two books. He would be back on Wednesday and sell two more.
“When I first started doing this, it was about money,” Dudley said. “But when you love something, you would do it for free, and that is how I feel about Street Sense.”