Street Newspapers Are Struggling To Survive Societal Shutdown

Newspapers for and by people experiencing homelessness are a fixture in many cities. But can these scrappy publications survive the coronavirus pandemic?
The street newspaper Real Change is written by a paid staff and sold by self-employed vendors, many of whom are homeless.
The street newspaper Real Change is written by a paid staff and sold by self-employed vendors, many of whom are homeless.
Elaine Thompson/AP

SEATTLE ― One week ago, before Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) issued a “stay at home” order shutting down all but the most “essential” businesses in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the office of Real Change, a street newspaper sold by homeless and low-income people in Seattle, was still bustling.

As one vendor collected papers from a staffer at the walk-up counter, another slipped a copy of the latest edition ― cover line: “SILENT SPRING: The City Shuts Down” ― into its clear plastic display case, upside down. “Because the world is upside down!” said vendor Shelly Cohen.

Nearby, a staffer handed a bowl of chili to a vendor who had just stopped by to take a load off.

But once the stay-at-home order came on March 23, the vendors were left with nothing to do ― and, for many of them, no way to make money.

The weekly paper’s founder, Tim Harris, said the staff had already decided to stop publishing a print edition earlier this month, but had still been letting vendors buy papers to sell on the streets up until the stay-at-home order.

Harris founded the Boston street paper Spare Change News before moving to Seattle and starting Real Change in 1994. This is the first time in the paper’s 26-year history that it’s skipped a scheduled publication date.

A similar story is playing out in cities across the country, where street papers ― newspapers that report on poverty and homelessness, and are sold on the street by low-income or homeless vendors ― are disappearing, as vendors fold their chairs, abandon their perches outside grocery stores and downtown businesses, and vanish.

“Currently, I believe that 100% [of street papers] have either stopped publication or are transitioning into halting their physical” press runs, said Israel Bayer, director of the International Network of Street Papers North America, a bureau of the International Network of Street Papers.

Some, like Real Change, have shifted to online-only publication, but about three-quarters of street newspapers have never had an online edition, and are facing a choice between ceasing publication or adapting quickly. “We usually feature a few of the stories online, but we don’t have a PDF version of our paper, so [publishing online] will be a little bit different,” said Jennifer Seybold, executive director of the monthly Denver Voice.

Brian Carome, CEO of the Street Sense newspaper in Washington, D.C., said he was “adamantly against” the idea of shutting down publication when it came up earlier this month, “because for most of the 130 men and women who sell our newspaper, it’s their only source of income.” Gradually, he said, “we came to the conclusion that, given what’s happening in other cities, that the person-to-person selling of the newspaper was a public health concern ― both for our vendors, many of whom have underlying conditions, and for the public.” This will be the first time in 17 years that the twice-monthly paper has not been published on schedule.

Many street newspapers, including the Street Sheet in San Francisco, have set up emergency relief funds for vendors. “We’re trying to find a way to reimburse them ― not to fix [the loss of income] but so they can kind of make some money” to survive, Street Sheet vendor coordinator Emmett House said. Some, like the Denver Voice, are hiring vendors to serve as peer navigators to steer vendors toward employment and housing, and creating grants to pay for specific expenses, like medication, rent and utilities. And others, like Real Change and the weekly Street Roots paper in Portland, Oregon, are paying vendors based on recent sales volumes‚ an arrangement that doesn’t account for tips but does give vendors an income without putting them, and their buyers, at risk.

Street Roots has also started hiring vendors to serve as liaisons to the city’s homeless encampments, delivering coronavirus kits containing hand sanitizer, up-to-date public health information, and other hygiene essentials to people living in the city’s homeless encampments. So far, this “coronavirus action team” has distributed kits to more than 1,200 people.

“That’s just the vendors organizing and going out and doing this on their own initiative,” Street Roots Executive Editor Joanne Zuhl said. “It’s a pretty cool evolution, and it’s interesting to see how this situation can translate into jobs for vendors in the wider community.”

As for-profit newspapers across the country lay off staff and cease print publication in response to the crisis, street newspapers, which run on shoestring budgets and are largely dependent on individual donations from local residents, may seem uniquely vulnerable to the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

But in other ways, Bayer said, they may be uniquely prepared. “Street papers already exist in an environment that’s irrational” ― that of homelessness and poverty, he said. “They may have to make radical changes to adapt to the current environment that we’re in, but they’re also nimble and used to adapting.”

Editorial departments are reporting on the COVID-19 crisis from home. Offices that used to serve as drop-in centers are putting duct tape at six-foot intervals on the sidewalk so that vendors can pick up cash and gift cards at a safe social distance. Vendors who are young and healthy are creating new kinds of work for themselves.

One thing that has been lost, street newspaper staffers say, is the sense of community ― both among vendors, and between vendors and the paper-buying public ― that the papers foster. Vendors who used newspaper offices as day centers and a source of human connection may be isolating in tents and apartments without human contact to relieve their anxiety.

“It’s a community space for connection and I think that’s where we’re really going to hurt in the next few weeks,” said Seybold, with the Denver Voice. “Usually, on a Friday, there would be 10 to 12 people hanging out. It’s an important part of what we do.”

Plus, the temporary cessation of direct sales eliminates more than just human contact between housed and homeless people; it cuts off an opportunity for political advocacy, Bayer said. Street papers cover underreported stories about homelessness and poverty, but they also advocate for policies, like ending homeless encampment sweeps, funding shelters and public housing, and (lately) rent moratoriums and eviction bans.

“In cities like Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco, street papers are considered part of the media landscape,” Bayer said. “They can be leaders in shaping not just how local communities and states are shaping policies and legislation around the COVID crisis, but also how the public views homelessness and poverty.”

CORRECTION: Israel Bayer is director of the International Network of Street Papers North America, not of its parent organization.

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