Alyssa Peterson: Can you explain Street Sense’s mission?
Brian Carome: We are a street newspaper, which is a model that exists in a lot of different places. Street newspapers are print newspapers that report on homelessness and poverty in the communities that they serve. They employ men and women, who themselves are homeless, to sell the paper and earn income from doing that. In our case, about half the content of the paper is also written by men and women who either are currently [homeless] or have experienced homelessness. We’ve been around since the fall of 2003.
We call ourselves a no-barrier employment opportunity. We offer orientations twice a week—every Tuesday and Thursday—throughout the year. You don’t need an appointment; you don’t need a referral; you don’t have to fill out any application; and you don’t even need to know the name of someone you’re coming to see. You don’t have to have any capital to buy any first set of newspapers. We provide you the first set of papers free.
Alyssa: What is the role of Street Sense in breaking down the stereotypes that people would think usually about homeless people?
Brian Carome: When we’re at our best, we help folks see the common ground between their lives and the lives of folks who are homeless. It takes away that sort of other, or sense of alien about folks who are homeless. And we learn that they are people just like us. They may have had different opportunities and different experiences. But they came into the world with the same hopes and dreams as everyone else.
People experience Street Sense in a number of ways. It’s through the newspaper and now through the playwriting workshop. But it’s also through the one-on-one conversation that individuals have with their vendor as they’re purchasing the paper. We think those are very important conversations. And we think that they are conversations that wouldn’t happen were it not for our being here. The relationship goes both ways. It’s important for our vendors to also get to know the readers and their customers. It’s helpful for both people to find that common ground.
Alyssa: Vendors say that Street Sense is really empowering. How does Street Sense create this dynamic?
Brian Carome: I think employment really puts the finger on what we try to do. I spent a lot of my career working in shelters and housing programs. The dynamic between our vendors is so different than in a normal client-provider situation. Our vendors feel a genuine sense of ownership in the organization. They are our entire distribution network and they author half of the content of the publications. They participate in our other programs as well and demonstrate ownership.
There’s a sense of comradery. Most of the vendors who walk through the door seeking employment with us at this point are word of mouth referrals. They have been brought here by an existing vendor, folks who understand what the organization can offer to someone. They want to pass that along to someone else.
We believe in the transformational experience that our vendors have when they’re here. Again, it’s that ability to apply their talents; to use their personality to make money that really has a profound change on people and impact on people’s lives.
Alyssa: What kind of programs are run to help foster this sense of community among the vendors and are you looking to expand this programming?
Brian Carome: We have a weekly writer’s group. That’s a tight-knit group of folks who come together every week and argue with each other and brainstorm with each other. [They] debate each other about their different perspectives on issues in the world. We also have an illustration workshop for folks who want to do illustrations for the paper. There’s also a videography workshop now and a playwriting workshop where we have a partnership with two playwrights at George Washington University Department of Theatre and Dance. Our vendors both write original works and also perform them together as a small troupe.
We’re looking for ways of capturing new audiences; ways of broadening the impact of this story of homelessness and how it’s afflicting the community. The other thing we hope for in the future is to expand our geographical footprint. We’d like to open up bureaus in some of the surrounding suburbs and begin providing that vendor, self-employment opportunity to those communities as well. And also to do more public education on the issue of homelessness as it affects Arlington or Montgomery County.
Alyssa: Why do you think people who are formerly homeless continue to be involved in the paper?
Brian Carome: One is the sense of community. In my experience working in shelters, one of the things that characterizes being homeless is a sense of aloneness and separateness. [Street Sense] helps put the blocks together to reconnect yourself to the community. And I think especially, again, for folks who are writing for the newspaper… it’s nice to see your name in print, and it’s nice to talk to people who appreciate what you’re writing.
The folks who are selling our papers are entrepreneurs; they are self-employed men and women. We give them that chance to be their own boss. I think that continues to be an attraction for folks.
Alyssa: Why is it so important that low-income people are at the forefront of the anti-poverty movement and that their voices are heard?
Brian Carome: They are not heard elsewhere. We wouldn’t exist if the Washington Post or the Washington Times was writing about homelessness every single day. So, we really feel like we fill a gap. We want the content of the paper to have an impact on those who read it and experience it. [In the paper], you can get a first person account of what homelessness is like; how it affects someone. We think that goes a long way to bringing this community to the point that we find homelessness unacceptable.
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Alyssa: Advocates anticipated that there was going to be an increase in homelessness this winter. Do you think the city is equipped to handle this?
Brian Carome: Certainly, the family shelter system is woefully inadequate. I guess most importantly though, is that there are cities across the country that are understanding that it’s less expensive to house people than it is to respond to people once they’re homeless. And we’re not doing enough in this city to embrace that approach. There are way too many folks that live outside. There are way too many families entering the shelter system.
Alyssa: How could the city be doing more?
Brian Carome: D.C. is [among] the top two or three most expensive housing communities in the country. It certainly speaks to why we have such a homelessness problem. We are wasting [money] any time we are sheltering or allowing folks to live in the street rather than giving them a place to live, even if we have to pay 100% of the rent.
And, the longer you’re homeless, the longer you’re going to be homeless. The solution is really quite simple. It’s housing people. Whether that’s providing a small rental subsidy or a complete subsidy, it’s less expensive than the millions and millions of dollars we’re spending on the shelter system—especially for families. It’s just way too wasteful. And what it does to folks—especially to kids—is very devastating and long lasting. It would behoove the city to rethink the way we approach it—especially for family homelessness.