City Desk

Street Sense Survives, Thrives During Recession

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Davita Simpson, 54, perches a cross the street from Metro Center. She leans against the wall by an ATM, timidly promoting Street Sense to the sharply-dressed weekday morning pedestrians. Selling the paper isn’t a great source of income, she says, “but it helps me get by.” Simpson is currently homeless. She began selling papers about a year ago to supplement her SSI checks.

At a time when newspapers all over the country are dropping like flies, Street Sense, the biweekly nonprofit newspaper on homelessness and poverty whose neon-vested vendors are omnipresent around Metro stations and commercial strips, is growing.

The paper, whose contributors are largely homeless, faced an uncertain future earlier this year. “We kind of saw the writing on the wall,” says Street Sense Executive Director Laura Thompson Osuri, referring to falling donations and withering grant support.

On April 15th, the paper’s front page read “Nonprofits in Peril.” Inside was a plea for donors to “SUPPORT THE STREET SENSE BAILOUT,” as well as reflections from vendors on what they would without Street Sense in their life. (The vendors, who are currently or formerly homeless, buy each paper for 35 cents, sell them for a dollar, and pocket the difference. For many, it’s their only source of income.)

Osuri says that the survival of Street Sense was never in peril, but the nonprofit began “planning for the worst.” They explored potential options if the organization ran out of money: merging with another nonprofit, or folding and allowing another organization to pick up the newspaper.

The April “call for help” raised a lot of money, according to Osuri. “We’re doing much better than we were.” Street Sense also brought relief to its budget by reducing paper quality, and increasing the price paid by vendors from 25 cents per paper to the current 35 cents.

Despite the declining outside revenue, Street Sense is growing. “There’s more people buying now than when I first started,” says Simpson. In the year she’s been a vendor, her daily haul has gone from about $40 to $80.

Vendors who have lost income from odd jobs are increasingly relying on the paper, Osuri says. She calls it the “Catch-22 of nonprofits. The income to support your organization is down, while the demand for your work is up.”

The days ahead look brighter. At the end of 2007, there were about 70 vendors circulating 20,000 papers a month. Now, almost 100 vendors distribute about 15,000 copies each issue—30,000 in a month. “Street Sense has hit a critical mass where a lot of people know about it and have come to respect it,” says Osuri.

The nonprofit is tentatively planning to drop the vendor price back down to 25 cents next year, but that the increased cost hasn’t hampered sellers. For many, Street Sense is still a stepping stone to a more comfortable life, says Osuri. “Our vendors are still improving their lives–getting other jobs, moving into housing.”

Davita Simpson hopes that she’ll soon be among them. “I’ve been waiting 12 years for housing,” she says. “And its cold out here.”

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  • 4m123

    Street Sense is an excellent paper, with news and features one can't get anywhere else, and some good writing and good reporting. The editor-in-chief is Mary Otto, who, as a reporter for the Wash Post, uncovered and reported the stories about Deamonte Driver, the child in MD who died due to lack of dental care. Her reporting of that story led to significant changes in the law, and meaningful improvements in low-income children's lives.

  • Manor