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Newspapers Provide Method and Means For Some to Move From Streets

September 27, 1996

CHICAGO (AP) _ For Susan Fisher, selling the homeless newspaper Streetwise doesn’t just mean an extra $300 weekly supplement to her welfare check.

``It built on my self-esteem to get me back out here and to strive for something,″ she said as she hustled to catch the 5 p.m. commuters at Union Station. ``It got me back into the working life.″

Like the thousands of underemployed people who sell street newspapers dedicated to the homeless, the 31-year-old mother of three is learning skills and earning an income.

Dean Schott of the state Department of Public Aid said welfare mothers are allowed to earn money on the side. For every $3 a woman earns, her welfare check is reduced by $1, he said.

The country has 40 street newspapers _ nearly double the number from the early 1990s _ and they are distributed primarily by the homeless or those at risk of being on the streets, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

``It gives homeless people who can’t play a guitar a way to raise money,″ said Michael Stoops, the group’s field organizer.

The publications vary in content, but many _ like the 4-year-old Streetwise _ have vendor profiles, advertisements, play or music reviews as well as contact information for employment services, food kitchens and support groups.

Fisher and other Streetwise vendors buy papers for 25 cents each, sell them for $1 at assigned locations and cannot get refunds on papers they don’t sell. Sales fund 85 percent of Streetwise, and grants and private and corporate donations fill the void, publisher Anthony Oliver said.

The newspapers will not end homelessness for everyone but can help some people without skills hold a full-time job, said Lea Jaroszewski, editor of Boston’s Spare Change.

``Many are unemployable,″ she said. ``They are not able to start at the bottom leg of a job at their skill level. ... But we offer them immediate employment with very few skills and very good pay.″

Douglas Coaston, who has been selling Streetwise for 3 1/2 years, disagrees with skeptics who say street newspapers legitimize begging.

``I don’t want to be labeled a panhandler. I want to be labeled really as a salesman. A lot of people don’t understand we really are salespeople,″ he said.

And passers-by tend to be more inclined to help someone selling a street newspaper than someone shaking a cup because ``it looks like they’re trying to work their way out,″ said Dan Cress, a sociology professor and homeless expert at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The newspapers also can lead to permanent employment off the street.

UAL Corp., the parent company of United Airlines, is considering hiring some Streetwise vendors for clerical or reservation jobs.

``At $6 an hour, it’s difficult attracting people to a job,″ said spokeswoman Willa Holden. ``But when someone is willing to stand on a street, maybe only selling six papers a day, $6 is great.″

Streetwise publishes every two weeks and has the largest circulation _ 120,000 _ of any homeless newspaper in the country, Oliver said.

Mike, a 60-year-old accountant who spoke on condition that his full name not be used, is one of at least 300 Streetwise vendors who Oliver estimates are no longer homeless.

Unable to work and pay rent because of a brain tumor, Mike said he got by selling Streetwise for 1 1/2 years in 1993 and 1994. He lived on the subway for several weeks until Streetwise profits allowed him to move into a transient hotel.

Mike, who said he no longer has the tumor, was able to get another job as an accountant and is now earning about $35,000 a year, about 25 percent of what he earned at his old job but more than in his Streetwise days

``I owe them so much,″ he said. ``I would not panhandle, and I would not accept charity or public assistance as a matter of pride.″

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