Baltimore is rich with culture and character, yet poverty is also very much a fact of life in the city.
As in many other places the voices of marginalized people have not always been heard. Two years ago, a group of homeless and advocates, including a formerly homeless man, Marc Schumann, banded together to change that.
Working on a shoestring, with help and support from the wider community, the group launched what is believed to be Baltimore’s first street newspaper, Word on the Street.
Since then, the independent, non-profit, grassroots newspaper led by those experiencing homelessness and by their allies has pressed forward with its mission: “to educate the community and expose the underlying causes of homelessness by highlighting the contributions of homeless and formerly homeless individuals while providing vendors with a source of income.”
About 75 percent of the paper’s content is written by those experiencing or who have experienced homelessness, with additional volunteers contributing the rest.
Healthcare for the Homeless, which operates a nationally-recognized clinic providing comprehensive care to the city’s poorest residents, lent some office space to the paper when it was getting started.
Since March 2013, Word on the Street has been located at 238 N Holliday Street in a temporary office space. The paper expects to move to a permanent space at the same address in the fall.
Word on the Street has similar aspirations and goals as Washington, DC’s eleven-year-old Street Sense and the rest of the roughly two dozen street newspapers across the country.The publications are typically no-frills operations, surviving on donations, small grants and the money vendors pay for the copies they go out and sell.
Yet after two years of survival, Word on the Street is still just eking out an existence, according to managing editor Damien Haussling.
“It has been a struggle,” said Haussling, a formerly homeless District resident. Vendors are just not selling enough papers, he explained.
DC and Baltimore are fundamentally different cities, according to Haussling, and although Word on the Street has been relying upon a similar model of distributing through vendors, those involved with the paper are currently discussing other approaches. In the near future, the staff of Word on the Street will hold a retreat to discuss possible options such as selling subscriptions or memberships and/or paying a few members to deliver papers.
The paper faces another challenge.
Up until now, each issue has been visually designed by Towson University professor Jessica Ring and her students. But Ring will not be teaching her class next semester. Looking back on her tenure, Ring told the staff of Word on the Street that the experience of working with them was “life-changing” for the students.
The next issue will be the first to be done without her help. Fortunately, several former students have stepped up to take on the responsibility of the newspaper’s layout.
Word on the Street remains a quarterly newspaper and, while staff members would like to publish more frequently, they currently lack the means. All staffers remain volunteers; some, according to Haussling, “are doing something else to pay bills but some [are] still homeless.”
In order to ensure some stability and additional manpower, the street paper is interested in starting an internship program – tapping into local schools to get additional help.
Still, despite these technical struggles, Word on the Street produces work that makes the staff proud and has run some successful fundraisers, including an annual art auction. The paper hosted a barbeque that didn’t cost the publication any money and was open and free to the public. According to Haussling, around seven hundred to a thousand people attended. The paper also has collaborated with a city speaker’s bureau, helping to raise awareness about homelessness.
Word on the Street’s most recent issue focuses on domestic violence. Often, victims of domestic violence are financially supported by their abusers, and so escaping home brutality can mean homelessness.
Featured on the cover is artist Kimberly Sheridan holding her portrait of Victoria Glover, a victim of gun violence. Sheridan’s goal is to discover and paint the one million Americans who have died by gunshot since December 1980.
The work rings true to Word on the Street’s goal of bringing a voice to those who might not otherwise be heard.