FeatureNovember 18, 2010 at 4:56 am

Fighting Homelessness Step By Step

The front page of the November issue of One Step Away contains a number of accounts about the meaning of Thanksgiving. But in these stories, the contributors don’t wax nostalgic about past turkey feasts; they don’t project a future of lying on a comfortable couch, overly nourished, shouting at a big TV screen showing the football game.

Maurice Walker writes: “Thanksgiving to me is a time to be spent with your loved ones, the people that you care about. But when you are homeless and have no place to go, and no family to spend Thanksgiving with, it just becomes another day. Sometimes I just want to ball up and cry. I ask myself: ‘What did I do to end up like this?’ Nothing. Things happen for a reason. So what do I do now? I stand tall.”

One Step Away is a monthly “homeless” newspaper that debuted last December, showcasing very specific accounts of the news. Written and photographed by Philadelphians of varying ages and from diverse educational and professional backgrounds, the paper offers the unique perspectives of its contributors, who are all either homeless or in the process of transitioning out of homelessness. One Step Away provides them the opportunity to showcase their creativity, engender awareness about their cause, make money and eventually find a path out.

The paper, produced by the nonprofit Resources for Human Development, which runs a number of homeless shelters in the area, is part of a nationwide initiative to solve the problem of homelessness through the medium of the newspaper. According to RHD representative Chloe Johnson, there are 31 so–called “homeless newspapers” around the country. But One Step Away offers something unique. A professional staff writes the content for those other papers whereas in Philadelphia homeless people themselves write articles and poems and take photographs. Johnson added that the organization is also planning to expand the paper — of which six to eight thousand are sold per issue — into Delaware.

The shelters involved with the paper — Ridge Avenue Shelter, located at 1360 Ridge Ave. and Woodstock Family Center, located at 1981 N. Woodstock St. — store digital cameras and tape recorders for everyone to share, RHD representative Kevin Roberts said. Those interested in selling the paper receive business cards, badges and vests at orientation meetings, where, according to One Step Away employee Gerald Ford, first–time vendors receive a stack of 20 papers for free. After that, returning vendors pay a quarter per paper that they will sell; they pay $5 for a stack of 20 papers and $10 for a stack of 40 issues. Then, they sell papers in the areas of their choice for the suggested price of $1, which goes entirely to the person selling it.

Beyond the measurable effects — some vendors were able to obtain housing as a result of their profits — participants also learned marketable skills that can help them find employment. “We have had people who have found jobs because of One Step Away,” Roberts said. “They are out in the community networking and the computer is no longer an obstacle,” as writers for the paper become proficient in Microsoft Word through the production process.

Roberts recalled the experience of Rosa Bermudez, who is shown in a photograph with Mayor Michael Nutter in an advertisement for the paper. He explained that at first, Bermudez “spoke in a whisper, but now she’s totally grown into herself. She has confidence and self–esteem.” He smiled as he told a story in which Bermudez uploaded photographs onto the computer and Roberts was unable to find them. When Bermudez was able to offer him computer pointers by explaining that she “went into the Media library and created and uploaded a folder,” Roberts said he was pleasantly surprised. “Rosa didn’t know how to turn on a computer in the beginning.” Now she and her two children have left the shelter and found housing.

According to many of the homeless in the area, the paper has given some a new take on life. Ford, 49 years old, was a drug addict and dealer from the time he was 27 years old until he was incarcerated seven years ago for a sentence of five years. The father of three has been homeless throughout different periods of his life; he was homeless before his prison sentence and lived at Ridge Avenue Shelter when he was released from prison. “The paper gave me strength, how to deal with different people, to go somewhere in life,” said Ford, who now lives in a house on 23rd and Reed streets.

Ford has been involved with One Step Away since its inception last summer, when he was living at Ridge Avenue Shelter. “Some guys got together and asked me if I’d like to be involved in a newspaper,” he said. At a meeting at the RHD headquarters, Ford came up with the paper’s title — “Unfortunately, I was one step away from a job,” he said. “In my life I was always one step away from one thing.”

He began his newspaper career as a vendor, selling as many as 500 papers in one week. Now, Ford — who has not written for the paper, preferring to stay “behind the scenes” — works on advertising and marketing. “I get people from different shelters to get people involved, show them how to set up paper stands, how to talk to people,” he said.

Ford volunteers at homeless shelters, delivering motivational speeches and spreading the word about One Step Away. He said he feels that there’s a perception that the homeless are “always taking.” Thus, the second issue of One Step Away featured the efforts to aid Haiti at Ridge Avenue Shelter. Everyone at the shelter raised money and collected clothes for the victims. An article about their effort was even placed in the Daily News — “that was one of the biggest things,” Ford said.

Many of the homeless people in the area, those who sit on benches in Love Park and City Hall during the day, have been made aware of the new entrepreneurial activity offered by RHD.

In Love Park, Andre Corbett and Charles Walker, both homeless, explained that they’ve seen the paper sold in a number of areas. Corbett, who says he has been homeless for “not long,” stays at Ridge Avenue Shelter. At the shelter, he has met a number of the people involved in the paper. “They enjoy it,” he said. “They sell the papers and make money.”

Walker, who has been homeless for eight months, said that he has seen the paper sold on Broad Street between Fairmont and Wallace streets. Though he said he has not read the paper, he thinks it’s a “good idea” and would consider being involved in the future.

Bruce Kennedy, a homeless man sitting outside of City Hall on November 12, agreed that the newspaper is an important tool for empowering the homeless. “It’s a good idea for homeless people to be able to earn [for] a few hours and it gives people a little experience in writing [and] photography,” said Kennedy, a self–proclaimed “big newspaper reader.”

Looking at the one copy of One Step Away he stows in his backpack along with a plethora of other newspapers, he said, “I’m mostly interested in the writers, the guys that stay at Ridge Avenue. I noticed that I’ve seen them before.”

However, Kennedy added that he was concerned about the “political slant” the paper might have and whether advertisers will cause writers to “color the news.”

Kennedy isn’t the only one skeptical about the paper. Frank, a taxi driver in the city who did not want to provide his last name, said he heard about One Step Away when he was living in a homeless shelter in Chester because of a physical ailment. “I don’t think it’s a good idea; it’s aggressively pushed and the cash is going to end up making the problem worse for individuals,” Frank said. As a result of his experiences in the shelter, he has a bleaker view of the homeless. He said that he feels that many of those who end up in shelters “choose that lifestyle, laughing at people who work because they get their $1,200 disability check.” Frank fears that the money vendors make from the paper may not be used properly.

Every Wednesday between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., Roberts sets up a table in the basement of the United Methodist Church on 55 N. Broad St. Strewn over the table are brochures, business cards, vendors’ guides and stacks of the most recent issue of the paper. Here Roberts leads an orientation for new sellers and hands out stacks of papers to veteran vendors.

These veterans also come with “questions and issues” that arise as they develop their business, Roberts said. The papers are sold wherever the vendors feel “comfortable and safe” and thus there are no strict areas of vending. Roberts said that people approach him at these meetings to inquire about where to find the paper on the street and the best ways to get copies and information about the projet into the hands of the homeless.

The November issue, in addition to pursuing a theme of “Homeless for the Holidays,” contains a voters guide entitled “Vote for Homes!” The guide, created in conjunction with the organization Project H.O.M.E., details the gubernatorial and senatorial candidates’ takes on “affordable housing, ending homelessness, economic recovery and jobs, disability benefits, addiction and mental health recovery, prison release and homelessness and funding essential services.”

The content of the papers contains mostly news and testimonials about homelessness. According to Roberts, “way more than 90 percent of the news,” consisted of these topics. “We want it to be a vehicle for [homeless people] to express their experiences.”

He added that even the articles not immediately concerning homelessness “end up coming from that place.

The writing is raw and striking; it comes from a place you don’t find anywhere else.”

Recently, the local chapter of the NAACP recognized the work performed by the employees of One Step Away, bestowing upon them the 2010 Community Service Award. Ford, along with a number of homeless writers and photographers, attended the NAACP’s Freedom Fund gala to receive the award. Pictures of the event decorate half a page of the November issue of the paper. “We all did it as one,” Ford said about his contribution to the cause.

Learning the business of newspaper selling and the skill of journalistic writing, homeless people gain the opportunity to become involved in a creative process, be it entrepreneurial or literary, which seems to have restored some vigor in their community. “The simple fact is that when a person shows up in a shelter, he is damaged, addicted, depressed and down because of the system,” Roberts said. “We have to give them the tools to get them back — One Step Away has been a part of that.”

Ford is evidence of this phenomenon. He has used his experiences at the paper to “reach out to people, especially young black children,” he said. He said he keeps them upbeat by giving them a “sense of God, something to hold on to.”

“We’re going to make mistakes, but we learn from them,” Ford said. “To try to reach those who really need help, One Step Away is a really good tool.”

For more information on RHD or One Step Away, visit RHD’s website, RHD.org. Alternatively, attend one of the weekly meetings, Wednesdays from 10 a.m.–1 p.m. at Center City’s United Methodist Church (55 N. Broad St.).

 

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