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StreetWise Success: Cash Flow Climbs But Vendor Income Drops
But the people that the publication was established to help–"the homeless–"are not cashing in on its success.
But the people that the publication was established to help–"the homeless–"are not cashing in on its success.
Monthly circulation declined from 124,699 in 1993 to 103,055 last year, shows an analysis by The Chicago Reporter. As a result, the average income of the paper's estimated 300 vendors dropped by 17 percent, from $312 a month in 1993 to $258 last year. Vendors buy the paper from StreetWise for 25 cents, sell it for $1, and keep the difference.
Still, the non-profit's bottom line is healthier than ever. In 1997, the paper raised $750,000 from private foundations and corporate donors to purchase and renovate its new headquarters at 1331 S. Michigan Ave., in the South Loop. The paper now has 15 paid staff members and up to 70 regular volunteers.
While the vendors' income declined, StreetWise revenues have grown, reaching $937,614 in 1998. Production costs rose from $153,365 in 1993 to $412,259 last year.
Anthony Oliver, 38, StreetWise executive director since 1994, said the paper had to improve its look and content to keep readers coming back. "In the beginning, people were buying the paper for the novelty aspect," he said.
Income for the vendors should be StreetWise's top priority, said Bob Caton, director of business and resource development at the Kenneth Young Center, a social service agency in northwest suburban Elk Grove Village. Caton, who said he has 25 years of experience in social services, was one of three students who analyzed StreetWise in a 1997 research project for Northwestern University's J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management. "Their mission is those vendors. The mission is not supposed to stop with the quality of the product."
To help the vendors, StreetWise last year spent $133,386 to create a Work Empowerment Center, which includes a library and offers classes in computers, resume building and other skills.
Edward Cephus, a StreetWise vendor since 1995, said the organization should spend money on providing housing and keeping track of vendors. "The vendors are not going to go in and learn computers when they don't even know where they will spend the night," he said.
Cephus, 36, is a familiar face to many Loop office workers. Most days, he stands in front of The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., singing, telling jokes –"and occasionally dropping to one knee to playfully plead for a sale.
Many vendors believe they can make more money selling StreetWise than working part-time jobs, and prefer the flexible hours, Cephus said. But $258 a month works out to $3,096 a year, far below the 1998 federal poverty threshold of $8,480 for a single person.
Still, the paper has "put a face on the homeless in Chicago," Oliver said, and peddling it is "a step up" from begging and panhandling. He is considering a run for Congress against U.S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush, a South Side Democrat, and said he will announce his plans at StreetWise's anniversary party in late October.
Vendor Verne Cooper, an African American, first heard of StreetWise from two homeless men on "a brisk November night" in 1992 while traveling the "tramp trail"–"what the homeless call their travels from one shelter and soup kitchen to the next.
"StreetWise saves lives," said Cooper, 43. "The success stories outweigh failures." He recalls heading out to sell the 10 newspapers StreetWise gives free to every new vendor. They sold quickly, and he was hooked.
As part of their orientation, StreetWise vendors learn basic budgeting skills, the rules of selling and how to solve problems, such as dealing with unauthorized vendors and panhandlers.
About 75 percent of the vendors are African American; the same percentage are men, Oliver said. The average age is 34. Wearing their official badges, they pick up papers at the StreetWise headquarters and head for their favorite spots. About 60 percent sell in the Loop and near North Side; another 15 percent work on the Near South Side and in Hyde Park. The rest sell in the suburbs, he said.
"StreetWise has helped me to be more independent and reliable," said Jacqueline Beason, a 39-year-old African American who was selling the paper in July as she sat in a wheelchair near the corner of Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street.
Vendors are required to attend meetings the Monday before each edition hits the streets, but only 25 attended the Aug. 30 meeting. "Those that are inspired will show up," Oliver said. "We're dealing with the most difficult to employ individuals–"people who won't show up for services."
They are required to sign a 10-point code of conduct, developed and enforced by the StreetWise Quality Assurance Team, a group of former vendors. The code forbids harassment of customers and other vendors, supplying unauthorized vendors with papers and selling while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Vendor Services Manager Al Arrendondo declined to provide statistics on the complaints StreetWise receives or how many vendors are disciplined.
"StreetWise has got to be the easiest organization to get along with," Oliver said. "You obey the rules, you commit yourself to self-betterment, self-improvement and then you take action. If they do not commit to these things," he added, "I'll kick your butt out. And they know this."
Many vendors spend their income on alcohol or drugs, said former Executive Director Christopher Persons, but he defends their right to make their own choices. "If they're going out and spending their money on crack or other drugs, they're also spending it on a room, a hairbrush, on things to live by. We need to give them a chance, to cast the net of opportunity as wide as possible."
Cooper said his drug and alcohol addiction cost him his job and home, but with StreetWise, he "started seeing dollar signs." On Feb. 28, 1993, he checked himself into Interventions, a drug rehabilitation clinic at 5701 S. Wood St. Cooper said he has been sober ever since.
Since January 1994, he has lived at Lakefront SRO, 4626 N. Magnolia Ave., a single-room-occupancy building in Uptown. His favorite spot to sell StreetWise is at the intersection of Lawrence and Clarendon avenues. But these days he is selling less and seeing fewer of his regular customers.
In May, Cooper earned an associate degree in psychology from Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson Ave., and recently began working toward a bachelor's at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He hopes to become a clinical psychologist and offer free services to the homeless.
"I used to think the world is full of bad people, and I set out to be the baddest of them all," Cooper said. But his work selling StreetWise and his faith in God taught him he "had it all wrong. There's actually more good people in the world than bad."
Oliver saw StreetWise as the "pure model of self-sufficiency" after its six-member board appointed him in 1994. He had served as director of circulation since 1993 and had a vision: The paper would provide vendors with immediate income, and refer them to other services as needed.
He now concedes that most vendors didn't pursue these services. The vendors' "motivation for making money superceded [anything else]. I don't care if they had one leg and needed two legs. They were going to sit downtown and sell that newspaper with the one bad leg."
Oliver initiated the Work Empowerment Center, and since its inception a year ago, more than 100 vendors have checked out library books and received tutoring and other services, said center Director Paula Mathieu. An $8,240 grant from private donors will allow StreetWise to offer stipends to vendors who use the center, she said.
And two StreetWise vendors will soon enter The CARA Program, 122 S. Des Plaines Ave., a non-profit organization that provides housing, social services, job training and job placement to the homeless and others at risk. About 410 people are referred to the program each year, and 190 to 200 are placed in jobs, Director Eric Weinheimer said. Participants must submit to drug tests and are dropped if they are late for more than two classes.
That may prove a challenge for StreetWise vendors, since service providers say vendors often do not follow through on opportunities to get help. During orientation, all vendors must undergo a health screening administered by The Heartland Alliance, a Chicago non-profit human rights organization. Counselors determine the vendors' needs and treatment options, and refer them to the agency's free clinic, Chicago Health Outreach, at 1015 W. Lawrence Ave. in Uptown.
Since last September, the program evaluated 423 homeless people at StreetWise, said Program Director Joan Schwingen. But neither StreetWise nor the clinic can say how many seek treatment. Because the homeless tend to be transient, their progress is hard to follow or enforce, said Carol Jean Kier, who supervises screenings.
"You can put services in front of people but you can't force them against their will," Schwingen said.
Shelter is the vendors' most pressing need, Kier said, though not all vendors are homeless. StreetWise does not provide housing or track where vendors live.
"When you become homeless, you're shell-shocked," said Pat Stewart, a 55-year-old white woman selling in July near Water Tower Place on North Michigan Avenue. "I want to get off the street, but it takes a chunk of money."
StreetWise debuted in August 1992 with a cover featuring a stark, black-and-white photo of a shabbily-dressed young man crouched in a doorway and surrounded by plastic bags. A hand-scrawled sign propped in front of him read: "I am Homeless. Would you please Help Me. May God Bless you. Thank You."
Editor Casey Covganka spelled out the paper's mission in a Page 3 letter to readers: To provide income to the homeless and "a unique source of information and discussion about the many personal, social and environmental issues facing us today."
StreetWise was founded by attorney Judd Lofchie, president of Judd Lofchie and Associates, a real estate firm in west suburban Aurora. He also was the president of People Ending Hunger Inc., a non-profit agency he helped create in 1987. In early 1992 he ran across Street News, a New York City publication for the homeless, and decided to bring the concept to Chicago.
Lofchie recruited Covganka, a friend with 17 years of experience in the Chicago Tribune's advertising department, and they recruited vendors. In October 1992, Covganka wrote that 375 vendors had sold more than 60,000 copies of the premiere issue.
Circulation grew rapidly; the January 1993 issue sold 120,000 copies, according to Covganka in the February 1993 edition.
But there were also growing pains. In November 1992, Lofchie incorporated StreetWise and organized a board of directors, with himself as president. In July 1993 the board hired Persons, an administrator with United Cerebral Palsy of Will County, as executive director.
"It was amazingly chaotic," Persons recalled. "StreetWise is a cash business. Vendors pay for the paper, and buy thousands a day. We weren't inventorying the product. –¦ When I looked in the safe the first time, there was just a big pile of money sitting there."
Persons hired an accountant, and in 1993, he brought Oliver in as circulation director. Oliver had been working at Ada S. McKinley Community Services, 219 S. Dearborn Ave., where he found jobs for the developmentally disabled.
But Persons said he clashed frequently with the board as the paper "went from a place where it was everybody's buddy working there to an organization of professionals. By the time I did that for a couple years, I had worn out my welcome."
When he arrived at work one day in September 1994, Lofchie told him he was fired, Persons said. When Persons protested, Lofchie called the police and had him escorted from the building, Persons said. Lofchie would not comment. The board later voted 5-4 to fire Persons. He is now director of operations for the Jane Addams Resource Corp., 4432 N. Ravenswood Ave., a training, education and economic development group.
"I think it's difficult sometimes for founders to let the program loose," said Les Brown, policy director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and a board member from 1992 to 1997. He voted against Person's firing. "There's a tendency to want to control it, hang on to it, not give up one's power."
Covganka said she left StreetWise in August 1993 over disagreements about control. The paper went through several editors before Persons recruited John W. Ellis IV, an editorial assistant at Electronic Media, a Crain Communications Inc. publication, in September 1994.
Ellis stayed two years, updating the design and adding color. In March 1995, he began a series of "special reports," including a story on the fatal shooting of StreetWise vendor Joseph Gould by off-duty Chicago Police Officer Gregory Becker.
"In general, StreetWise was struggling with its identity," said former Managing Editor Jennifer Atkin. "Was it a direct service provider, a newspaper or an advocate? It was almost like two organizations in one. It was kind of schizophrenic."
Staff members began to sense the tension. Midge Hough, hired as the director of advertising in 1997, said she was among many employees who left StreetWise after a year because of internal problems.
Angela Rucker, an administrative assistant at StreetWise, filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Labor after Oliver fired her Jan. 26. Her case, which charges StreetWise with "retaliatory discharge," is pending. She said Oliver fired her because of her previous complaints about management.
In May, the Labor Department awarded her $90 in back overtime wages from a previous complaint, state documents show. Rucker also is considering suing the paper for punitive damages, said her attorney, Jamie Sypulski.
Oliver would not comment on the Rucker case or any other employee issues.
Brendan Shiller, who took over as editor in June 1997, said he had hoped to make StreetWise even more hard-hitting by adding investigative reporting. One issue examined the city's "sweeps" of areas where homeless people camped.
Shiller, 28, the son of Alderman Helen Shiller (46th), viewed the paper as a "great opportunity to write about a class of people being ignored. It was a way to reach a population not being reached by other alternative media."
He left a year later, but won't say why. His replacement, Managing Editor Jalyne Strong, is the former executive editor of Afrique Newsmagazine, a Chicago-based monthly for people of African descent.
Strong said StreetWise's diverse group of freelancers, writers and columnists is helping the paper become one of the city's most important alternative publications.
"To be honest, our most permanent impact on StreetWise was that it looked better," said Shiller, now an organizer for the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, a citywide coalition of tenants' groups. "We did some hard-hitting stories. I don't know if it changed anything. But I do believe a larger percentage of the people buying the paper read it because of those things."
For more information on street newspapers, visit the following sites:
w National Coalition for the Homeless
w The North American Street Newspaper Directory
w International Homeless Discussion List and Archives page
w Real Change article: "How to Organize a
Homeless Newspaper in Your Own City"
Contributing: Mick Dumke. Sylvia Barragán, Tokumbo Bodunde, Claire D'Alba, Emily Dodson, Peggy A. Floume, Ylda Kopka, Chanel Polk, Abhi Raghunathan, Michael A. Rohner, Eleanor LeShore Smith, C. Paul Techo and Stephanie Williams helped research this article.