This DC Newspaper is Reinventing a Way to Help the Homeless

Laura Thompson-Osuri and Ted Henson, just a couple of volunteers in Washington, D.C., had an idea about launching a new street newspaper. In August 2003, they took their idea to the National Coalition for the Homeless, where they had a lively and receptive discussion.

Just a few months later in November, the 5,000 copies of the first issue of DC Street Sense rolled off the presses. What the duo had just started would go on to give scores of the less fortunate who found themselves homeless the chance to work at providing a better life for themselves.

With a stated mission of offering economic opportunities and a voice to the homeless in the D.C. metro area, Street Sense first began as a monthly newspaper before making the switch to a 16-page biweekly. Half of the paper is written by the homeless, while the other half comes from the help of staff and volunteers such as students and journalists.

The company additionally employs the homeless to distribute the papers once they are printed. The vendors, who sell the papers on street corners throughout D.C., buy them at 50 cents per issue, which covers the costs of publishing. They’re encouraged to ask for a $2 donation per copy. Whatever money is made goes straight into the pocket of a vendor. In a typical day, a vendor will make about $45.

Eric Thompson Bay has been writing articles and selling papers for Street Sense for more than two years and says the job keeps his focus sharp in his day-to-day life.

“I want something different in life, and what keeps me focused in life is selling papers,” Bay said. “Out of 100 people that walk past me I’d say maybe one or two of them buy a paper. They say, ‘What are you going to do with the money?’ and I explain to them, I pay 50 cents for the paper and I ask for the suggested donation of $2. I tell them we write a lot of articles in here ourselves and the donation you give me is really helpful.”

Before starting at Street Sense, Bay had a life filled with despair. In 1968, his mother was murdered, leaving his father to raise him. At the age of 9, his father passed away. From the age of 19, Bay was a frequent visitor to the city jail.

Street Sense was instrumental in turning his life around. The time he’s spent working for the newspaper has made up the longest period he’s kept clean and off drugs all while staying out of prison.

“I really had no guidance after that, and I had no instruction or discipline,” Bay said. “I wish that I could do it all over again. I wish that I could do a lot of things over.”

“When I first started with the paper, I wasn’t thinking like I’m thinking right now. I was on drugs when I first started at Street Sense,” he said. “Now I focus on: I have to pay rent, I have to pay my cell phone bill, my insurance — these things that I need. That’s how important the paper is to me, by meeting people and (the) opportunities. I put a lot of work into my articles, so I know a lot of the vendors are doing the same thing.”

Street Sense executive director Brian Carome said the paper brings something to the table for the homeless that readers can’t find anywhere else.

“We’re really proud of the fact that half of the paper is produced by persons who themselves are either currently or have experiences homelessness, and you can’t find that anywhere else,” he said.

Editor-in-Chief Mary Otto added that the paper serves as an important vehicle: It gives the homeless an identity and voice after they may feel as if they’ve lost both.

“As writers, we all claim a certain identity by writing and putting a name on what we write — that’s true for me and any of the vendors, too,” Otto said. “In a way it’s even truer for them because in homelessness you lose so much of yourself.”

“You can really forget who you are and the world forgets who you are,” she added. “You hope that, as people, if there is a moment when the stop and listen and maybe even buy the paper, they might actually learn something from the paper and they might enjoy talking with the vendor that makes their lives bigger and richer to have that experience.”

Today, Street Sense has built a team of around 100 active vendors and sells 16,000 copies every other week.

To learn more about Street Sense, click here. If you live in the D.C. area and would like to find out ways to volunteer, click here. If you would like to help out the paper financially and to provide a donation, click here.

Joe Schoffstall is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @JoeSchoffstall.