When David Denny walks the U Street corridor of Washington, D.C., it doesn’t take much to remind him of the 1968 riots, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. led to looting and arson that left the city in flames. “We saw people throwing bricks and bottles, and breaking windows: All hell was breaking loose,” Denny recalled. “You’d see stuff burning everywhere.” Today, he walks around the same neighborhood, pointing out the African American–owned businesses that survived the looting. “A lot of innocent people got caught up in this whole fray, me being one of the innocent people. I had a gun trained on me at the age of 13.”
Fifty years later, U Street is a thriving commercial corridor, but the riots are still fresh in Denny’s mind. For years, he coped by using drugs and alcohol, and he spent some time in prison. For a time, he called an abandoned building in southeast D.C., roughly a 15-minute drive from where the riots took place, home. He busied himself by writing poems in his head about his experiences, to keep his mind active and spirits up. Nights were spent sleeping atop a flattened box, a makeshift bed in a sea of milk crates, broken glass and empty cans.
Denny would be the first to admit that his current life looks quite different from the one he worked hard to escape. As a contributor at Street Sense — a biweekly, volunteer-run newspaper whose vendors are part of the homeless community — Denny spends three days each week in his blue Street Sense vest, a stack of papers in hand, selling copies to D.C. residents. A portion of the sales goes towards the paper’s production costs; the reporters tasked with selling copies keep any remaining earnings. Other days, Denny facilitates orientations for new vendors in Street Sense Media’s office.
It’s a business model that’s worked well for the company, which has expanded from an initial print run of 5,000 newspapers in 2003 to a thriving media center, where staff members can use various media platforms — including film, theater, audio, photography or illustration — to tell their stories. “When I first found Street Sense Media, I was sleeping on the street, addicted to drugs and alcohol, and coming home from prison,” Denny said. “I wanted to find a way to be productive in society.”
While the first street paper, the now-defunct Street News, was founded in New York City in 1989, there are currently over 40 other street papers in circulation in the U.S., including Nashville’s The Contributor and Portland’s Street Roots. In 1994, the International Network of Street Papers was founded in Glasgow, Scotland, taking the movement worldwide. Today, there are more than 100 street papers in 35 countries, employing about 21,000 vendors annually and reaching over 4.6 million readers.
In an era where the circulation of print newspapers has been steadily declining, the existence of Street Sheets might seem like an anomaly. However, their power as an advocacy tool has enabled some papers to fund themselves through grants, though the amount each one receives can vary widely, according to Megan Hustings, Director at the National Coalition for the Homeless. “Grants are a one-time thing, and you get lucky if you receive them more than once,” she said. “While we’ve seen some papers ebb and flow, others have gotten well set up.”
While the cost of each paper varies by city and publication — according to Jeff Gray, Street Sense Media’s sales and communications manager, most cost $1 or $2 per issue, with monthly magazines costing slightly more — the business model for all papers is the same. Vendors purchase papers at a discount, and sell each issue for a slightly higher price, keeping any profits. “It’s entrepreneurial for the vendors,” Hustings said.
The majority of Street Sense Media’s operating budget comes from private donations. “We get grant money from private foundations, and generate some income from sales of the papers,” Gray said. Vendors purchase their papers for 50 cents an issue, which goes towards the paper’s operating costs, and each issue is sold for a suggested donation.
But before they’re able to sell papers, vendors must train to earn their license to sell. At Street Sense Media, the training is up to a month long. “We ask that they come in for an hour-long training once a week,” Gray said. “Once they leave, they have a checklist to complete [which includes] attending multimedia workshops and meeting staff members.” The workshops are held twice a week, and are led by volunteer professionals in their field, Gray said. “We have a theater workshop hosted by a nonprofit theater company, a filmmaking cooperative and a writer’s group run by a local professor.”
It might sound like school, but none of the workshops are mandatory, and none of the vendors have deadlines. They’re given writing prompts and are encouraged to create art based on feedback from instructors. “The amount of time spent selling the paper and participating in workshops varies from vendor to vendor. We don’t have any requirements,” Gray said. “Some vendors sell the papers seven days a week and don’t participate in workshops; some come to workshops and rarely sell the newspaper.”
Denny found Street Sense Media through a former vendor, and he was inspired to use the paper as an outlet for poems he wrote while in prison. “I only create poetry; I can’t draw or sing,” said Denny. “But I had a ton of poems in my head, and I submitted one of them every time a new issue came out.”
One of the entries Denny’s most proud of is Commentary to a Black Man, which caught the attention of former President Barack Obama after one of Denny’s most regular readers sent it to him after its publication in 2013. Nine months after the poem was published, Obama responded with a letter, reflecting on its depictions of the African-American community and the need for a commitment to change. “We need to change the statistics for young men and boys of color — not just for their sake, but for the sake of America’s future,” Obama said in the letter. “We will start a different cycle, and this country will be richer and stronger for it for generations to come.”
One of the biggest benefits to vendors at Street Sense Media is the full-time case managers they have on staff, who play a key role in helping vendors connect to services that will help them find permanent housing. “Affordable housing in D.C. is [still] incredibly expensive,” says Colleen Cosgriff, Street Sense Media’s on-staff case manager. “It can be a long and frustrating process for someone to wait, and there are a lot of unknowns. But we try to work ahead of those things so when the opportunity arises, we’re ready to go.”
Among the complications that make it a time-consuming process: In order to get into permanent housing, the list of items vendors need to provide varies by program. The most important item to recover is the person’s ID — which can be a driver’s license, social security card, birth certificate or immigration documents. “When someone is homeless, it is common for their belongings to be stolen or thrown away while they are on the streets or in a shelter,” Cosgriff said. “It’s important for someone to have all of their IDs because some programs require this.” Once these items are found, the vendor can apply for a housing voucher.
She added: “One of the great things about Street Sense Media is while I’m working on a lot of tangible needs, like housing, benefits and healthcare, we have artistic workshops and opportunities for people to express themselves and tell their own stories.”
The most important part of Cosgriff’s work with Denny was playing a part in rebuilding his day-to-day life. “He’s an amazing writer, and being able to share that in a paper was really important to him,” she said. “One of the things we had to work on is the concept that there’s something better out there for everyone,” she added. “People don’t deserve to be homeless. They don’t deserve to live in this type of poverty. But when you’re in there for years and years and that becomes your life, you’re surviving day to day.”
While Cosgriff hasn’t known Denny as long as some of the other vendors, she admits that working with him was more than just a weekly check-in. “David and I didn’t sit down and say, ‘It could be better,’ and that was it,” she said. “We talked about housing, life and art. He’s a poet, and I also really appreciate poetry, so we were able to have a conversation around things that were important to him. It’s amazing to see customers interacting with him, and to hear him doing his pitch and to see people responding to him.”
Cosgriff says her work with each vendor is important, as is the bigger picture of what Street Sense Media hopes to accomplish in their local community. “We have the opportunity to help someone get the tangible needs met,” Cosgriff said. “To get the food, to get the healthcare, to get the home. But then we also have these amazing workshops, and this community for people to rebuild the other side of their lives — to respect themselves in a way they maybe haven’t in a while.”
To hear David’s story and to learn more about Street Sense Media, watch this video.