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Baltimore has its first 'street newspaper' run by homeless

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Bonnie Lane stands in front of Baltimore's City Hall, arms crossed, lips pursed, on a mission.

Her stance is memorialized in a photo and article on the pages of Word on the Street, the fledgling newspaper she helped launch nearly a year ago. The "street paper" — one of 23 in the United States — is produced by homeless people, their advocates, and those who were once homeless, such as Lane.

"You need to give people hope," Lane, 39, said. "Once they lose hope, they're not motivated to make things better for themselves."

Providing those struggling for stability the hope for a better future is a primary objective of the paper, said Lane, a writer and an editor who was featured on the front page of the paper's most recent edition in a picture stamped with the words, "Waiting for change." The goal also is to educate the public about the plight of the homeless, who number in the thousands in Baltimore.

Instead of working in a traditional newsroom, with constantly ringing telephones and journalists pounding on computer keyboards, the reporters and editors at the street paper file their stories about homelessness and poverty from the public library, on sheets of loose leaf paper or even on tape recordings. Others submit artwork and poetry.

Staff at Healthcare for the Homeless on Fallsway, including Vanessa Borotz, helped launch the 5,000-copy, quarterly paper last March. The paper's home base is the Baltimore facility, but Borotz said the newspaper is looking to find grant money to allow the staff to rent office space.

"A lot of times people who are working on these newspapers are learning and discovering the power of their own stories and the power of their own voice," Borotz said. "Not only are they educating themselves, they are educating the community. Seeing what they can accomplish is pretty impressive."

Word on the Street is believed to be Baltimore's first street newspaper. Attempts have been made in the past to circulate news about homelessness and poverty, but the previous efforts came in the form of newsletters in the 1980s.

Beryl James, a Baltimore man who has been chronically homeless for "20 to 30 years," is selling copies of the paper to make some money to get on his feet. He said he thanks God for the opportunity to work and says a prayer before he counts his earnings.

"Some days are good days," James said. "Then you've got your days when you make $5."

Even the modest earning is a boon to James, who moved into an apartment Dec. 5.

"It's enough to get you a bag of tater chips," he said.

Vendors, like James, are the only paid positions on the newspaper staff. They keep 75 cents for every $1 paper sold. The other 25 cents is used to cover production costs. Borotz said the goal is to pay the writers and editors through various programs, such as workforce training stipends.

Borotz, an AmeriCorps member who serves as the organization's Faces of Homelessness Speakers' Bureau coordinator, said the production of the paper is a community collaboration. For example, Loyola Radio paid initial printing costs, the Baltimore Indypendent Reader helps put on writing workshops on Saturdays at the Baltimore Free School and Fusion Partnerships helped facilitate its creation.

Also, graphic design students at Towson University work with the newspaper staff to lay out the paper, whose last edition was 16 pages.

Jessica Ring, an assistant professor in Towson's art and design department, said working with the newspaper teaches the students about the complex issues that contribute to homelessness as well as the professional aspects of design, such as interacting with clients.

"The class is about connecting students to the idea their work can [serve] the greater good and make a statement," Ring said. The students repeatedly say, "This was a life-changing class."

Her class, Graphic Design for Social Issues, connected with the homeless men and women and advocates through the Faces of Homelessness Speakers' Bureau, a project of the National Coalition for the Homeless. The students and the newspaper staff meet at least twice per issue to figure out the design and story placement.

The fourth edition is due out this month and will publish an article that will evaluate the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness, the Journey Home, now that the effort has reached the halfway mark.

The paper has not typically run advertisements, but Borotz said the staff is evaluating how much to charge and is considering bringing on a college marketing intern to help establish policies. Eventually, Borotz said the staff wants to offer additional news on its website, wordonthestreetbaltimore.org.

Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said that among the newspapers' value is the awareness it creates for the public on matters related to homelessness.

"If we are to end homelessness, it will begin by an honest conversation that involves unhoused people," Donovan said. "We really need to be about homeless people speaking in a first person's voice."

In a time when traditional newspapers are struggling, Donovan said street papers are an economically viable method of communicating with people who are homeless and cash-strapped. Buying and selling the paper also involves a hand-to-hand exchange, which Donovan said is an intimate act that builds an understanding between individuals.

Sean Condon, co-chairman of the North American Street Newspaper Association, said the model for street papers varies. Some papers pay their writers, who sometimes include laid-off journalists from traditional newspapers, he said.

Condon is executive director of the Vancouver-based newspaper Megaphone, one of eight street papers in Canada. Across the world, there are 110 street newspapers in 40 countries. The quality of the street papers continues to improve since the first of their kind, Street News, was started in New York City in 1989.

"It's a movement that keeps growing right away," Condon said. "It's an interesting phenomenon. As more people learn the potential for street papers to change people's lives, the more people who get into it."

The largest street paper is the Big Issue in London with 100,000 copies sold each week. Nashville's paper, the Contributor, is the largest in North America with a monthly circulation of 120,000. A newer addition, Washington's Street Sense, was created in 2003 and prints 30,000 copies a month.

Street newspapers also have their own wire service that provides shared content.

Condon said the street papers empower those struggling with poverty and homelessness, and help them become self-sufficient.

"There is often a misconception of the inability of people to produce and the will of people to contribute something," Condon said. "There is a great desire to get involved in all segments of society. For a lot of people, the street paper becomes that opportunity."

ywenger@baltsun.com

twitter.com/yvonnewenger

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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