Street journals: news, dignity
Special to The Times
When Timothy Harris graduated from college 20 years ago, he found himself looking for ways to blend his interest in alternative journalism with a passion for grass-roots activism — particularly homeless activism, since he had experienced fleeting moments of homelessness in his youth.
In 1984, fresh out of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Harris founded his first alternative newspaper, "Critical Times." Then he launched Boston's first homeless newspaper, "Spare Change," in 1992, while working as executive director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
Two years later, Harris moved to Seattle, with a vision of starting a second homeless newspaper. The result was "Real Change," which recently published its 200th issue and is celebrating 10 years in business.
Even though he didn't know a single person in Seattle when he moved here in 1994, Harris thought this would be a perfect place for a new paper, citing its combination of prominent grass-roots homeless activism, street traffic, "lots of liberals" and "lots of money."
Financial support has been particularly generous in the past two years. In 2002, The Seattle Foundation donated $20,000, followed by a $50,000 grant from United Way to fund the paper's strategic business plan for the next three years. Paul Allen donated $75,000 this year.
Now, Harris says, he expects to reduce foundation dependency by 2005 and have Real Change become self supporting.
"The plan describes how we will change our vendor management to support more vendors, go weekly in 2005, and build a stronger base of ad support," he said.
Harris has attracted more than just financial support for Real Change. This spring, he was honored for his work on that paper by the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which awarded him its Susan Hutchison Bosch Award.
The award, which isn't given every year — it was last awarded in 2001 — recognizes "intellectual honesty, deep understanding of people and their problems," according to the SPJ Web site. It is named after an environmental-affairs reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who died of Hodgkin's disease in 1971.
It was Harris' willingness to explore different paths of journalism that helped convince the SPJ chapter to honor him at its awards ceremony in May. Indeed, part of Harris' appeal to the board was that he wasn't a mainstream journalist, said Ruby de Luna, chapter president.
"He took a nontraditional route, and he succeeded," de Luna said. "He's giving voice to a community that would otherwise not be heard."
"It was wonderful to be able to talk about street news in a room full of professional journalists," said Harris, who said he thinks of himself more as a nonprofit administrator than a journalist these days. He sees the award "as recognition by SPJ that Real Change is a real newspaper to be taken seriously."
Real Change is one of 55 worldwide members of the International Network of Street Papers (www.street-papers.org), based in Scotland. Another group, the North American Street Newspaper Association (www.nasna.org), lists nearly 50 members in the U.S. and Canada. In addition to Real Change, Washington state also has "Rising Times" in Spokane, a NASNA member.
At the typical member newspaper, homeless vendors sell the papers on the street, keeping 50 to 60 percent of the cover price.
Israel Bayer, director of "Street Roots," a homeless newspaper in Portland, Ore., said his staff is having a difficult time keeping up with the rise in popularity of homeless papers. The paper, originally called the Burnside Cadillac, in reference to shopping carts often used by homeless people on Portland's Burnside Avenue to cart their belongings, has grown from a distribution of 3,000 in 1996 to more than 10,000 in 2004.
"We've grown way past our capacity," Bayer said. "We can't stop growing even though we are trying not to grow. It's been a wild ride, but I think we're catching up to the reins."
Street Roots maintains a storage space for the homeless and a cooperative press, which offers homeless writers access to a press and a stipend if they want to publish a book or "zine," a lower-quality paper booklet, Bayer said. The paper also organizes frequent poetry readings open to the public.
Bayer said over the past five years, he estimates that 20 formerly homeless people have been able to find living spaces with income from selling papers.
But he said the most profound dynamic of homeless papers is that they bring community members face to face with homelessness in a dignified manner and give homeless people the satisfaction of having a job.
"The biggest thing it does is create self-worth and self-confidence. If you don't have self-worth, it's hard to climb out of the hole circumstance has dealt you."
Tara Nelson is a senior at Western Washington University majoring in journalism. She is a recent recipient of a scholarship from the Society of Professional Journalists, Washington Chapter.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company