Last night Andy and I went to a trendy downtown neighborhood for dinner, and as we paid for parking, we were approached by a middle-aged man with a wiry gray beard and patchwork coat. His brown skin was creased with hardship, but his voice was clear and strong, his eyes bright in the light of the setting sun. He explained that he didn’t want to disturb us, but he was offering an alternative newspaper — free, with a suggested donation of $1. The paper was written to benefit the homeless, who earned income by purchasing copies and then distributing them.
This man wasn’t just selling, though. ”I write, too,” he said, his voice ringing with pride. “Got an article comin’ out in the next issue.”
“Congratulations,” I said warmly, with a big smile. As a writer, I know what publication means. The excitement, the validation.
Wanting to support him, I donated a dollar for a copy of the paper. (In retrospect, I wish I had given him more.) Then Andy and I continued to the restaurant where we were meeting our friends. After small talk, drinks, and gourmet tacos, the conversation turned to work stuff that didn’t really interest me. So I slipped the newspaper out of my purse and flipped through its pages.
The articles were mostly local, with a uniquely urban angle. Stories included a defense of dumpster diving, support for a local inn that serves as low-income housing for women, and the gentrification of the very neighborhood where we were currently dining.
A letter from the editor explained more about the newspaper’s mission. The goal is not just to help the homeless, but to empower them. Give them meaningful work, and a voice. There are many rules these distributors have to follow — no begging, no drinking or drug use, no belligerence. The list of guidelines takes up an entire half-page of the paper. To some that might seem like a lot to ask, but as I thought more about this operation, it seemed to me that you could not put a price on what was being offered in exchange.