By Nick Mutschler
“Word on the Street,” Baltimore’s new street paper has hit the ground running.
Like Street Sense, and dozens of other sister publications across the globe, the new street paper aims to tell the stories of poverty and homelessness, while helping poor and homeless people help themselves.
Since the first issue came out in March, “Word on the Street” has been keeping Baltimore readers informed, with reports on social issues including police brutality and the shortage of affordable housing.
“We’re not only educating the public about homelessness issues, we’re also giving individuals a chance to write who never envisioned themselves putting together great stories,” says Vanessa Borotz, chief coordinator of the paper.
“Word on the Street allows chance to develop not only their writing, but their leadership skills as well. We can see how truly empowered people become by being able to share their stories”
Marc Schumann, a formerly homeless Baltimore resident got the idea of starting the paper back in 2010.
But making “Word on the Street” a reality required a large fellowship of organizers, from members of the homeless community and their advocates, to college students and a professor.
The paper, which is published quarterly, began to take shape with help from Baltimore’s Faces of Homelessness Speakers Bureau, a group supported by the National Coalition for the Homeless and several Baltimore homeless organizations. The speaker’s bureau, based at Baltimore’s St. Vincent dePaul Church works to inform the public about the causes of homelessness, training homeless men and women to be community educators. Many of the speakers are now lead organizers, writers and editors of Word on the Street.
“We have such a diverse group of people who come to our meetings, it’s easy to see how much help these meetings provide,” says speaker Tony Simmons.
Roughly 75 percent of the written content in the newspaper is provided by writers and artists who have experienced homelessness in the past or are still homeless today.
But members of the wider community also pitch in.
In a report called the “The Waiting Game,” for instance, reporter and community advocate Bonnie Lane chronicled the story of a Baltimore native who was on the city’s public housing waiting list for over 14 years before being approved, only to die a week later.
The paper is designed and composed by Towson University professor
Jessica Ring and her graphic design and social issues class.
“The students take so much out of this course, our hope is that they continue this sort of activism even after they finish the class,” Ring said.
The course is primarily filled with graphic design students who regularly work directly with the writers and contributors at Word on the Street. Although the students do not contribute stories, there is a great deal of crossover between the class and the paper.
“As we are preparing the layout for the paper, students may have an idea for a photo or image for a story, so we’ll get in touch with Word on the Street and collaborate. There is a really good back and forth that goes on between us in this way,” said Ring.
Photography workshop coordinator Michael Jefferson said engaging readers in the stories of homelessness is the objective.
“Our goal is really to expose Baltimore residents to the issue of homelessness through storytelling and doing so through as many mediums as possible.”
Also playing a vital part in the paper’s creation has been 1620AM WLOY Loyola Radio station and its program, “Both Feet In,” which features stories on homelessness and other social issues.
WLOY provided funding to the paper for the entire first year’s printing costs and also hosted a fundraiser on April 27 at the Cork Gallery which raised over $2500 more. The students have learned much about homelessness through their involvment in “Both Feet In” said John Davecka, Operations Manager at WLOY.
“The first episode of Both Feet In came out in February 2010, right after ‘snowmegeddon,’ which was a great time to launch,” Davecka recalled.
“We have a fairly affluent student body, so while students were complaining about not having hot cocoa, the less fortunate were outside freezing on the streets and stuck in shelters. The program helped open the eyes of the students and getting peoples attention.”
Word on the Street shares a business model common to many street newspapers around the world.
Word on the Street vendors pay a quarter for each issue, which covers production costs. Then they ask their customers for a dollar donation.
The paper is hoping to keep growing and fundraising too.
“We are really looking to humanize and bring a general understanding of the problems facing Baltimore, but we could use all the help we can get,” Borotz said..