Successful efforts to decrease homelessness must take into account that a large number of Americans experiencing homelessness (33 percent according to the Treatment Advocacy Center) have a mental illness. A report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness says that many who are homeless struggle to get a job because they often lack work experience and have criminal records. That’s why Street Sense was founded.
Street Sense is a nonprofit organization, located in Washington, D.C., that uses employment and economic empowerment as key ways to help people experiencing homelessness. The organization produces a newspaper, also named “Street Sense,” that gives people living on the streets a chance to build a work history, earn money and develop their communication skills.
The organization welcomes all those who are experiencing homelessness, including those with mental illnesses, who have taken their training and agree to the Street Sense code of conduct to become a vendor. Street Sense gives each new vendor a neon-colored vest, an ID badge and 10 free copies of the latest Street Sense issue to sell. After that, vendors pay 50 cents to Street Sense for every paper they are planning to sell and ask buyers to pay about two dollars a copy. On average, vendors make $45 a day selling papers. The practice of spending money to make a profit helps vendors gain experience in honing sales skills and in handling cash flow.
Street Sense also enables vendors to develop their writing skills. Approximately 80 percent of each issue is written by vendors, often covering topics related to mental illness. Street Sense staff hold weekly writing workshops to help vendors with their pieces for the paper. Vendors write about the struggles related to living on the streets. Street Sense Chief and Editor Eric Falquero says, “Being in print — or for Street Sense these days, on screen and on stage — is a record of who you are; what you believe. That’s something that is often lost in survival mode. You have to identify and organize your thoughts to write. It’s therapeutic: for me, for anyone. And once it’s out there, no one can take that away from you.”
By writing for and selling issues of Street Sense, vendors with mental illnesses not only earn money, but they also combat negative stereotypes.
Mental health disabilities are invisible and there are a lot of stigmas associated with them. As Amin, a street vendor who identifies as having a mental illness, says, “Both writing for and selling Street Sense has given me a positive outlet. I am able to connect with members of the community in a productive and engaging way. The response that I receive from return customers is encouraging and to be able to sell a paper to someone new is rewarding. The most important factor is that working for Street Sense has helped me develop a routine.”
Street Sense is trying to change public perceptions about homelessness. In addition to publishing two issues of the newspaper a month, Street Sense assists vendors in sharing their views with the public by facilitating town hall meetings and through video projects. “The skills you practice when contributing to it can define you,” says Falquero. “I am an editor. And many of our vendors are writers, photographers, filmmakers and artists.”
Street Sense’s efforts to change public perceptions are especially important in improving the mental health of those who live on the street. The National Alliance to End Homelessness states that some of the symptoms of mental disorders, like paranoia, cause people with these disabilities to push away from their families and communities. This self-isolation contributes to the number of people with psychiatric disabilities who experience homelessness. Through its various projects, Street Sense counteracts this isolation. “The great thing about a media platform is that it reaches people you might never otherwise speak to. Our pages are a dialogue across the housing spectrum, as are many of the transactions that occur between vendors and customers. It builds community,” Falquero explains. Executive Director Brian Carome has witnessed the power of vendors connecting to and forming relationships with the public. “The work of ending homelessness,” he explains, “is work we see our vendors do. It’s the relationships they develop with folks on the street that buy the paper that really transform them.”
In addition to Street Sense, there are about 90 street papers around the world that help people experiencing homelessness build a community. To learn more about these efforts, visit The International Network of Street Papers’ website.
ABOUT STREET SENSE
Street Sense started in 2003 after two volunteers, Laura Thompson-Osuri and Ted Henson, each approached the National Coalition for the Homeless independently about starting a street newspaper in Washington, D.C. At first, Street Sense’s print run was 5,000 copies. The organization has consistently published its street paper and has greatly expanded its circulation and vendor network over the last 14 years. Vendors now sell nearly 16,000 papers every two weeks. Visit the Street Sense website to learn more.