- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2003

George Siletti until recently worked as a community support aide in a Baltimore hospital, helping poor patients get back on their feet. He quit to find a better-paying job, but ended up living on the District’s streets.

Mr. Siletti shares some of his experiences in Street Sense, a new newspaper produced by local homeless people and volunteers, including some professional writers. The publication hits the streets today and is scheduled to be printed about once a month.

“People think all homeless people drink or are on drugs. I haven’t had a drink or a drug in 13 years,” Mr. Siletti said.

Street Sense is aimed at changing the public’s perception of the homeless, said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, a D.C. advocacy group that is helping sponsor the publication.

“The biggest thing we want to do is raise awareness. Everyone thinks they know the story of the homeless. There is a lot that people don’t know,” said Mr. Whitehead, who worked on a similar newspaper while living on Cincinnati’s streets in the 1990s.

Street Sense also will provide local homeless people with a source of income.

Ten thousand copies of the first edition will be printed, and each homeless vendor who agrees to sell the newspaper will be given 10 free copies. The vendors will pay 30 cents for each additional copy, which they will sell for $1 apiece.

The vendors must agree to honor a code of conduct, including no pressuring customers, no selling after midnight or while drunk or on drugs and no engaging in turf wars with other vendors.

The newspaper will focus on stories about homelessness. The first edition has 16 pages and features a report on the crowded conditions at the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter, as well stories on free haircuts and other services available in McPherson Square and a preview of congressional legislation to reduce homelessness.

The paper also features profiles of homeless military veterans, an editorial on “living-wage” laws, poems, recipes and book reviews.

It is not without a sense of humor. Mr. Siletti, for example, will write a regular “how to” column. His first topic: how to sleep on the street.

“When it’s cold outside, the best place to sleep is on a steam grate. But when you can’t find one of those locations, the average sidewalk will do,” he writes.

Street Sense is one of about 45 such newspapers in North America, Mr. Whitehead said. Some of the publications, such as those in Chicago and San Francisco, have been around for several years and are known for solid investigative reporting and aggressive editorials.

There is even a wire service for the papers, the Homeless News Service, and a trade group, the National Association of North American Street Newspapers.

StreetWise, the Chicago paper for and by the homeless, started a D.C. version about three years ago, but it failed because the sponsors didn’t know the area well, according to August Mallory, one of its vendors. Mr. Mallory was homeless at the time, but now has a mail-order business and lives in Baltimore.

Street Sense will cover homelessness in the District as well as its Maryland and Virginia suburbs and Baltimore, Mr. Mallory said. It will be sold primarily in high-traffic areas, such as the Metro Center, Farragut North and Union Station Metro stops.

The publication is produced at the National Coalition for the Homeless offices in downtown Washington, where a makeshift newsroom has been set up. The list of volunteers is growing, although individuals still are needed to write, edit and sell advertising.

“We’re a very inclusive organization. We don’t exclude help from anyone,” said Ted Henson, a National Coalition for the Homeless volunteer and Street Sense’s editor. He and co-editor Laura Thompson, who works full time at a banking-industry magazine, hope Street Sense eventually will be printed every other week.

The first edition was paid for entirely through donations, but the editors hope that advertising will help fund it in the future. Neither the federal nor D.C. government is helping to pay for it.

Pierre Lewis, a former prison inmate who has been homeless in the District for about three years, said the newspaper has given him a clear direction. He has written three poems for its inaugural edition.

“The homeless aren’t dreamless. Writing appears to be my forte. It’s a passion of mine. It’s my dream to make it a career,” he said.


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