In the beginning, it was just “the street paper project.”
And the feasibility of that project, the creation of a nonprofit newspaper to be produced and sold by the homeless men and women of Washington, D.C., was not readily apparent to everyone approached by Street Sense co-founders Ted Henson and Laura Thompson, who later became Laura Thompson Osuri. “It took a fair amount of convincing to get people to believe in us,” Henson recalls.
That was a decade ago. He was just 23, bussing tables in a restaurant. But he had ideals and energy. So did Thompson, a 26-year-old reporter for a banking industry publication. They did not know one another when they started out but they joined forces to build a network of support for their project out of friends, relatives and street newspapers already up and running in other cities around the country. The National Coalition for the Homeless offered office space and the tax-exempt status that enabled them to do their initial fundraising. They taught themselves the production skills they needed to create the newspaper and visited shelters to recruit the newspaper’s original handful of vendors.
As Thanksgiving 2003 drew near, the first issue was sent to press. An order was placed for 5,000 copies.
The pages contained a mix of carefully-written articles on themes that would become staples for the publication: a feature on church volunteers offering blankets and sandwiches to indigents in a downtown park; an article on the shortage of space for homeless families in a local shelter; poems and recipes and reflections offered by people dedicated to writing about homelessness from the outside looking in and from the inside looking out.
Street Sense was a reality.
“Getting out that first issue was incredibly helpful in terms of convincing people, including ourselves, that we could do this and that we were for real,” Henson said.
In 2004, Street Sense moved into its own office in the Church of Epiphany in Northwest Washington, D.C. By 2005, the paper had received 501 c 3 status, becoming a nonprofit organization.
James Davis was living at Central Union Mission, searching for a job in the electronics field, when he heard about Street Sense. He was one of that first group of vendors selling Street Sense. To him, the paper was a source of badly needed revenue as well as an outlet for his poetry, essays and reporting.
In the spring of 2006, for example, Davis contributed to one of the paper’s most important and memorable projects.
Written by Osuri, the coverage appeared under the headline “Homeless People Hired to Evict Tenants.” The investigation revealed that local companies were recruiting and underpaying homeless men to carry out evictions. After the story ran, homeless men who had worked for the companies obtained legal assistance and filed a class action suit alleging wage violations. In 2008, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found violations had occurred. The case is still in the process of being settled.
To Davis, working with Street Sense has affirmed the enduring power of the press.
“Stories still need to be told.” Davis said. “People still need to be educated.” He added that being involved in the paper has helped vendors reclaim their voices. “I’ve seen people get their self esteem back and feel like they are part of society,” he said.
These days, Street Sense publishes every two weeks with a monthly circulation upwards of 30,000 copies. More than 100 active vendors now sell the paper. College journalism and communications students serve semester long internships writing for the paper. Dedicated volunteers pitch in to run vendor writing and drama groups, and to help produce the paper and run the office. Roberta Haber is one of them. She works in the office one afternoon each week, answering the door and helping the vendors who come to purchase copies of the latest issue. Haber said she believes Street Sense offers its customers insights they may not find in other papers.
“Street Sense readers benefit because they read stories they won’t see elsewhere; sometimes they buy the paper from the writer or the subject of a story, which might make them feel connected to the issues they’re reading about,” Haber said.
On October 10th of this year, the paper celebrated its 10-year anniversary with a gala in recognition of the donor, volunteer and vendor support that keeps the paper thriving. Along with celebration of the paper’s history, the first ever scholarships were awarded to three of the organization’s vendors.
Henson and Osuri have moved on with their lives and careers. Henson earned a master’s degree in public health from Harvard. He is overseeing a community health needs assessment project and living in Boston with his wife and infant son. Osuri, married and the mother of two boys, is living in New York and working as a freelance writer.
Both were on hand at the gala, where they marveled at what their “street paper project” had become.
“We really did not have that vision – let alone much of any past the first issue – when we first started planning things,” Osuri acknowledged. “ I really am touched to see how many people Street Sense has affected over the last 10 years changing lives for the better for both homeless individuals and readers. And I am excited to see what the next 10 years will bring…”