From time to time, back when I spent more time downtown than I do now, I occasionally bought copies of Street Sense—Washington’s “street newspaper,” the 16-page one sold and partly written by homeless people. As a freelancer I didn't have a commuter route; I was here and there, and I never got to know any of the individual vendors in the way some customers do. Some of the vendors were forward, others reserved. A few seemed dotty, but then so do a few of everybody. I usually paid the "suggested donation"—now $2—and rarely more.
Though I never went looking for the paper, out of curiosity I’d leaf through it. My impression was always the same: a fair amount of it was poorly written, I want to say authentically poorly written. (I also want to say, given the realities of newspaper writing, lightly edited or unedited.) Given that the topic was often homelessness and, typically with a how-to-slant, allied subjects like jobs, housing, documents, medicine, social work, and criminal justice, I also wondered who Street Sense was written for. Homeless people? Social workers? The general public?
Today, looking over back issues from 2019, I get the same impression. Now as then, the articles (some credited to interns or guest writers, others to “Artist/Vendor”) run the gamut from professional journalism to unedited ranting and raving.
Street Sense appeared in 2003, well into the era of the modern street newspaper. According to the former North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA), which in 2013 merged with the International Network of Street Papers (INSP), the first modern or secular U.S. street papers appeared in the 1970s, though Christian prototypes existed in the 19th Century. The oldest extant one, and the oldest INSP member, is San Francisco’s Street Sheet, which started in 1989—that is, a few years into one relevant American triumph and one relevant American disaster. First, thanks to Apple Computer and Adobe, desktop publishing was being born, incidentally paving the way for the desktop e-publishing that is the Internet. At the same time, the so-called deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill—a process dating to the 1950s but accelerated by the first Reagan Administration—meant that American streets (and prisons and jails) were increasingly filled with the mentally ill who make up a large fraction of the homeless population. By 1990 there were more homeless people…and more and cheaper ways to publish.
According to the masthead, Street Sense—which in 2013 became one product of a venture called Street Sense Media—employs roughly one hundred vendors. As Page 2 of each issue explains, vendors are independent contractors; they buy issues for $0.50 per ($0.25 per every other Friday [Meyer, p. 16]) and resell them for a suggested price of $2 per. Though Street Sense is sold the old-fashioned way, hawkers and pulp, since 2017 customers have been able to pay either with cash or electronically, with a smartphone app. Back issues are available online, for free, at issuu.com.
On its own terms, in entertain-and-inform terms, is this biweekly worth $2? After all the City Paper, which covers a lot of the same ground, is bigger, and it’s free (i.e., ad-supported). So are many of the region's local and hyperlocal periodicals, among them DCist.
The answer will probably depend on one's assessment of the value of what might be called perspective, especially in the first-person storytelling (some of it in verse) that often figures in Street Sense. Can you hear voices here you can’t hear anywhere else, except maybe in a literary magazine? I think so. Does that make the paper worth $2 an issue? Sometimes.
Few writers of any sort—including those lucky enough not to have to cold sell their own writing to strangers on the sidewalk—have the skills to put over extremes of tedium, humiliation, pain, and hope. Too, it’s almost impossible to write well about trouble you’re still in the middle of. For all the authentic venting that goes on in its pages, I find Street Sense best in its straight-up, third-person journalism—for example, a recent brief report (p. 5) about Department of Public Works personnel confronting a one-man “encampment” at 16th & K NW.
But then Street Sense isn’t really in the newspaper business, or not only in the newspaper business. How many readers buy the paper to be entertained and informed? Given the muddle of incentives on the customer side—generosity, guilt, curiosity, sometimes a wish to avoid being pestered—I wonder, how many people sit and read Street Sense as opposed to feeling good about having bought it? But then as a writer, which do you prefer? Three copies of your work sold and read? Or 300 sold and thrown in the trash?