Some of the harshest parts of extreme poverty are the physical aspects: weather, shelter, violence, and traffic. Most homeless persons will attest that the physical conditions are among the most difficult challenges of not having a home. And, while the physical is an undeniably central element of homelessness, symbolic forces are also powerful. Communication, at interpersonal and organizational levels, plays an important role in the ability of people to manage and transcend life without a home. Street newspapers, such as StreetWise, are one type of service that people at-risk for homelessness can utilize to improve their financial situation.
Street newspapers are similar to a standard newspaper's style and look, but they differ in three important ways. Street newspapers are often published weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly as opposed to daily. In terms of content, street newspapers are usually at least partly dedicated to topics such as low-income housing, poverty, social services, and labor issues. Lastly, street newspapers are distributed and sold by people who are homeless instead of by more traditional means, such as news stands, vending boxes, or retail stores.
StreetWise is an organization located in Chicago, IL, that publishes a newspaper by the same name. As a street newspaper for social change, StreetWise gives homeless persons, or those at-risk for homelessness, a chance to work. Founded in 1992, StreetWise is considered one of the most successful street newspapers in the country. Many big cities around the world claim a street publication of some sort (Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Seattle, London, Calgary, and Stockholm). After undergoing a training program, vendors can purchase copies of a weekly newspaper from the organization for 35 cents per copy. StreetWise vendors can then go into the city and surrounding suburbs to sell those papers for a recommended price of $1 per copy.
StreetWise and its vendors face a number of communication issues. One of those issues is visibility. Historically, governments and institutions have attempted to remove people without homes from the public eye via laws (anti-public camping, anti-panhandling, anti-public bathing, anti-food distribution) as well as mental institutions and incarceration.
Dennis, a younger vendor, spoke powerfully about issues of his visibility when selling StreetWise. Dennis stated:
“The biggest problem I face is being ignored. If I'm talkin' to you; just regular, ‘How you doin' today, man?' And if you can't acknowledge somebody to say, ‘How you doin' today?,' something is really wrong with you. I'm happy to be here, aren't you? That's all I really want, man.”
On a very personal level, Dennis laments people who are not paying attention to him when he is working. He is not concerned solely with people who do not purchase papers from him, but rather, with people who do not acknowledge his existence. In a very simple way, his comments highlight the importance of communication, of recognizing each other, and talking to one another. Similarly, another vendor, Frank, commented about a man who was afraid to touch his hand: "I was out working and a person dropped a dollar. I went to grab it, and as soon as my hand came out, he didn't even want to touch me ‘cause that's how dirty I was."
Potential customers ignore and avoid vendors for many reasons: nearby panhandlers, people in isolation with IPods and cellular phones, general fears about homeless persons, businesses passing out free products, and fatigue from being constantly asked for money. Despite all of these obstacles simple recognition, everyday conversation, and touch are important aspects of communication with homeless persons.
Acts such as saying “hello” to a vendor are, in actuality, very powerful mechanisms by which we participate democratically in daily life. Communication, such as a simple greeting, affirms vendors as members of society. Alternately, crossing the street to avoid a StreetWise vendor reinforces notions that it is acceptable to ignore undesirable people in the public sphere, that they have nothing to contribute, and that they are not worthy of our concern and care.
Another issue vendors face is the acceptance of their work as a job. StreetWise vendors make unique language choices that function to legitimate their efforts as work. Many vendors expressed frustration at people who tell them to “get a real job.” In an effort to justify their work, vendors adopt the language that others use to talk about work and employment. Vendors talk about receiving paychecks, despite the fact that they simply keep the money they have earned at the end of the day. Vendors discuss taking breaks and going out for shifts just like a factory worker might. Donations, that is, extra money given above and beyond the retail price of the newspaper, are considered tips.
Customers also play an important role in recognizing vending as a job each time they choose whether to purchase a paper or just donate a dollar. In the short term, a donation helps the vendor because they can then resell that paper for more money. However, over the long term, not taking the paper hurts the organization and the vendors, as it stimulates lower demand and subsequently reduces production and deprives the organization of valuable income. Giving a dollar and not taking the newspaper unwittingly reinforces the idea that StreetWise is similar to panhandling rather than a job.
The essence of democratic life happens in many everyday behaviors. Basic interpersonal acts such as saying “hello,” engaging in polite conversation, and handshakes are as basic to democratic life as are business exchanges, consuming information, and community involvement. StreetWise accomplishes these goals by integrating vendors in community life through employment and raising awareness about poverty-related issues. Moreover, through their business and mission, street newspapers encourage citizens to be engaged with people, address important social issues, recognize the less fortunate, and help them succeed. People who are homeless face many daunting hurdles in trying to overcome extreme poverty. The communication practices of the organization, the significance of interpersonal relationships, and the persuasive strategies used by vendors to justify their work highlight the role of communication in alleviating the harsh aspects of homelessness.