Nonprofit Spotlight: Street Sense

Street Sense gives the homeless a job

It’s a rainy spring day in the nation’s capital. Inside a toasty old back office, James Davis, the self-dubbed “CEO of 17th and L Street,” is holding forth on what it takes to be a successful street newspaper vendor. He should know: In ten years working on his favorite corner, he has sold 100,000 copies.

Street Sense, a biweekly paper sold by D.C.’s homeless, offers flexible employment and practical life lessons where both are scarce. Beyond a training session and adherence to the code of conduct, there is no barrier to entry; all comers are accepted regardless of work history or criminal record. It calls on entrepreneurial skills and habits of discipline many vendors never knew they had, but old pros like Davis help them develop. Remember, he tells his audience, you are your own boss, and this is your own business; you will get out of it as much as you put in. It helps to have a catchphrase, such as his signature, “Help the homeless help themselves by supporting Street Sense!”

Founded in 2003 by banking reporter Laura Thompson Osuri and shelter volunteer Ted Henson, Street Sense has counterparts in more than 100 major cities in the U.S. and abroad. Vendors purchase papers wholesale and resell them retail, pocketing the profits. In D.C., they invest 50 cents per paper and collect $2 or more per sale; many customers are happy to contribute extra, especially to vendors they’ve established a rapport with. Davis says an active vendor can earn $100 a day. Paper sales account for a quarter of the nonprofit’s operating expenses; grants and donations provide the rest of the $250,000 annual budget.

In D.C., about 130 vendors distribute more than 30,000 copies of the paper every month. The gumption and stamina required to do this are impressive. Vendors often face rejection or rudeness from pedestrians, who may not distinguish them from the gaggle of petition-gatherers, evangelists, hawkers, panhandlers, and others vying for attention on the sidewalk. Davis stresses the importance of staying professional and positive. Who knows, he tells himself—that person walking by may have already donated, or may just not have any cash on hand.

The paper’s content revolves around homelessness and poverty. Vendors write about half of each edition themselves, while interns, staff, and volunteers produce the rest. The range of subject matter reflects the lively personalities involved. Autodidact Jeffrey McNeil pens a column usually devoted to sharp criticism of the welfare state. Amateur ecologist Cynthia Mewborn writes on scientific topics, often everything that you could want to know about a given kind of bug. Katrina survivor Gerald Williams has an ongoing series on his family’s escape from the storm.

Experienced journalists lead weekly writing workshops for the paper, giving contributors a chance to come together, toss around ideas, and hone their craft. This week at the office, with the radiator rattling away, a dozen regulars assemble. Angie Whitehurst, working on a piece about insurance options, gets feedback on the additional data she needs to research. Chon Gotti shares the series of job losses that put him on the street. He got by for a while ferrying cigarettes across state borders, but gave up this gray-market gig to join Street Sense, where, he says, he makes less money but finds the work more satisfying. Charles Davis tells how surprised he is that he’s met so many friendly people—most of all, the blind man who approached him to buy, of all things, a paper.

When customers and vendors get to know each other, “it makes their lives bigger and richer,” says editor-in-chief Mary Otto, in a video promo. A big part of Street Sense is the relationships it builds. In addition to the writing circle, Street Sense vendors bond via support groups and workshops. Even those just entering the business find purpose and autonomy in their ability to sell. Many vendors report that becoming involved with Street Sense has helped them out of addiction or debt.

This is thanks not just to the material benefits, but to the humanizing effects of having a voice and a vocation. “In homelessness, you lose so much of yourself; you can really forget who you are, and the world kind of forgets who you are, too,” says Otto in the video. Reflecting on a decade of experience with Street Sense, James Davis has spoken of its power to restore that loss: “I’ve seen people get their self-esteem back and feel like they are part of society.”

Caitrin Nicol Keiper is executive editor of Philanthropy.