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TRYING TO WRITE A HISTORY OF THE ROLE OF STREET NEWSPAPERS IN THE SOCIAL MOVEMENT TO ALLEVIATE POVERTY AND HOMELESSNESS

An address to the fourth conference of North American Street Newspapers,
Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio
July 23, 1999

By Norma Fay Green, Ph.D., Journalism Professor, Columbia College Chicago

In the summer of 1996 in Chicago some of you may remember I stood before a room of street newspaper representatives from the United States, Canada and Europe and talked about my preliminary research into the history of street newspapers. I’m happy to report that since then I have gotten to know more of you and the publications you founded and continue to create. Unfortunately, I still did not feel adequately prepared to fulfill Brian Davis’ kind request that I write a mini-history for a NASNA member’s manual this year. That request and my confidence in thinking I could write an overview were a bit premature. But I’ll tell you what I know so far. Here are highlights of my findings.

· The street newspaper movement in the U.S. can be traced at least to the 19th century.

· The earliest street newspapers appeared to have religious sponsorship or inspiration

· The secular street newspaper era began in the 1970s, with explosive growth in 1990s..


It is fortuitous that we are meeting in Cleveland as this is the site of the first mission set up in America in 1872 by proponents of the British-born Salvation Army who worked among this city’s poor and African American communities. (The Army itself began in England by William Booth, who grew up in a working class family and got swept up in political and social reform as well as Christian evangelism and set up a mission in the infamous slums of London’s East End chronicled by Dickens and others). In addition to street preaching to help get their message across, the Salvationists created a publication War Cry.

The weekly publication which began as a “roughly edited, crudely designed four-page broadsheet” had two kinds of readership. First, it was designed to help representatives in North American and European urban outposts keep in touch with one another. Later, it was sold on street corners to help explain to the public how they could help the needy. The Salvationists’ theology drew on a mix of Methodism, Wesleyan revivalism, Quaker tenets and the Holiness movement (transforming the secular world, especially cities, into the Kingdom of God). The War Cry contained numerous stories about the destitute who were converted and turned their lives around. Salvationists would march into saloons in order to sell subscriptions to War Cry. Apparently enough of the public bought it that the Army decided to branch out from War Cry, and subsequently produced The Social News, begun in 1911 as a way to publicize the many social services provided by the Salvationists including an industrial training and housing facility. Aimed at the public, the new publication was a means to raise funds to continue and expand. Also, by the 1920s, there was a junior version of War Cry called The Young Soldier. Many women got their journalistic start as writers and editors for these publications. By the 1920s, War Cry was featuring columns written by medical doctors and a “poor man’s lawyer.” It also revamped its women’s section to include child care and homemaking tips. War Cry continued to cover news within and outside the organization including exposes on sweatshops and internal investigative journalism such as that performed by the editor William Cox who donned old clothing and pretended to be a tramp to check out conditions at the Salvation Army’s own Lighthouse shelter for men.

That incognito method proved popular with another man. James Eads How, an heir to a St. Louis fortune, chose to live his life as a hobo, riding the rails, sleeping in flophouses and wearing old clothes. Fueled by the Social Gospel Movement that adhered to helping relieve the suffering of the poor, Mr. How founded the International Brotherhood Welfare Association and a publication known as the Hoboes Jungle Scout in 1913. That newspaper evolved into the Hobo News in 1915 which became a monthly and lasted until at least 1929. Hobo News in turn evolved into the Hobo World newspaper. The only existing copies of the monthly publication indicate it was mix of job news, poems, sentimental short stories and lore about the life of hoboes. It was apparently popular with its readers. It encouraged its readers who may also have been its most faithful contributors, to become vendors and sell 50 cent annual subscriptions to the paper, which initially sold for a nickel in single copies.

A 1916 issue of Hobo News noted the role of the newspaper in helping the vendor: “The public will more generously respond to our invitation for help when you offer them something of real merit like the ‘News,’ than for a straight handout. For this very purpose the News was ushered into the journalistic field. It offers you all the profits if you are willing to prove your willingness to help yourself by offering it for sale.”

An article in Hobo News the following year was addressed specifically to the general, nonhobo reader:

“You bought this paper for a nickel. You got your money’s worth and you did a good thing. Yo[sic] helped some poor man to make a few pennies for his lunch and you helped to give yourself an education. We care not whether you be an aristocrat or a plebeian, a priest or a millionaire, a professional man or worker--it is necessary for your welfare and all your fellow citizens, that you should be in touch with the evils of the hobo life.”

By 1920, the Hobo News had become radicalized with a more leftist ideology influenced by Marx, Lenin and the Russian Revolution. The publication ran into trouble with the postal authorities for distributing what federal government considered radical material. Its cover proclaimed, “Published monthly in the Interest of the Causal and migratory Workers--the Hobo Class--the Modern Journeyman. To enlighten the Public in General and Organized Labor in Particular on the conditions that his Class is up against and the slumbering powers it embraces.”
The actual fate of the paper and its disappearance is still waiting to be chronicled . [ However, Portland Oregon which claims one of the earliest modern street papers called Homeless Times dating from 1972, also went under the nameplates of Pipeline and Hobo News. Any link is still to be determined there.]

Apparently more of the hoboes wanted to take direct control of the magazine and set aside the Christian socialism in favor of more overt political action on their own behalf. Religious overtones were present during the worldwide Depression . American socialists Dorothy Day and Paul Mairn founded the Catholic Worker in 1933 which continued as a national weekly for 50 years. Chief among its precepts was concerted efforts to help find ways to feed the poor and shelter the homeless. Before that, as early as 1907, other more localized efforts included Milwaukee’s Homeless Boy a monthly newspaper published by Father J. Daly to local parishioners in an effort to help find good permanent homes for 50 boys under his care at the Milwaukee Catholic Boy’s Home. It included poems written by some of the self-proclaimed street urchins as well as short stories and essays publicizing the benefits of adoption.


No systematic research has been found on particular newspapers and magazines of the Forties through the Sixties. A latter day religious publication and NASNA member, Loaves and Fishes began in 1981 from Elkton, Md.’s Meeting Ground, described in the NASNA directory as a “non-profit religious mission supported through spontaneous gifts of faith and love.” Other recent ones include Dark Night from St. John of the Cross Catholic Worker in Cedar Rapids, Ia.; Homeless Express distributed by the New Life Evangelistic Center in St. Louis and the Homeless Report which was co-founded by secular and sacred groups, namely the Minnesota Coalition for Homeless in Minneapolis and the St. Paul Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of the St. Paul and Minneapolis.

During the 1980s that decade that author Tom Wolfe characterized as the “Me Decade” of greed and narcissism, the gap between “haves and have nots” seemed to increase. And with that chasm rose publications determined to raise public consciousness and perhaps guilt about the issues homelessness in the wealthiest countries of the world. As you know, modern homelessness is attributed to globalization of the economy , deindustrialization, unemployment and dislocation as factors along with a shortage of affordable and adequate housing, the failure of emergency shelters and food banks, the reduction in social programs, and the desinstitutionalization of those with physical and mental disabilities. Publications to address these issues were started by public and private agencies and activists as well as individuals concerned with peace, justice and social welfare.

Street papers of the modern era became a means to publicize the issues surrounding homelessness--a cause--that needed more public support to help change the situation. Activists who honed their political skills during the 1960s and 1970s applied them to creating new media. They had come of age at the time of great social change including the civil rights movement, peace demonstrations, La Raza, poor people’s marches, women’s liberation, the gay rights movement, the ecology movement, the American Indian Movement and international student and worker strikes. Everything deemed to be part of the “Establishment” became suspect, including organized religion. Also, those who were homeless or at risk took notice and decided that they needed to exercise their own voice and not have others speak for them.

Our keynote speaker and Street News veteran Lee Stringer describes some of that atmosphere in a recently published collection of his essays, including this one about his first visit to Street News’ Manhattan distribution center :
“West Forty-sixth street, Winter 1989. The Street News distribution office is located in a midtown storefront on Manhattan’s West Side, formerly the site of Blimpies’s sandwich shop, long ago gone belly-up. The cracked plastic sign still hangs above the door. Inside, the places has been gutted, giving it a makeshift quality quite appropriate to the cause.

The first time I laid eyes on the place, a pair of old street geezers were perched on upturned milk crates jut outside the door, oblivious to the winter chill, garbed in black cap, T-shirts , and money aprons that said Street News. Each had a wad of bills pinched between his fingers and they were comparing the thicknesses of their respective accumulated earnings. I was struck by the brilliance of their gap-tooth grins. Trailing out the door and snaking halfway down the block was a line fo eager people waiting to get in, all summoned there by nothing more than word of mouth. The whole scene had an exhilarating, up-from-the-streets kind of momentum , reminiscent of the phenomenon now offhandedly dismissed as the sixties. Only the eighties were in good evidence as well.”

Secular street papers began appearing abut 15 years ago, particularly as you all know in the last decade. By the 1980s , the public became aware of more people literally living on the streets. Homeless individuals were impossible for any urbanite to avoid seeing and no one who cared had to look hard to find them in the suburbs and rural areas as well. Activists turned to journalism. While the mainstream press did occassional articles or broadcast stories about the plights, they never went into depth and it was never enough to be of service. It didn’t advocate action on the part of the public and provide useful information to those at risk.

So, emboldened homeless individuals as well as activists and advocates decided to establish alternative media to sustain public attention. The biggest increases in street newspaper growth in North America seemed to come in the mid 1990s. As even members of NASNA do not all list their birthdates in the annual directory, I have no real way of knowing when each of you and your predecessor publications began. (PLEASE TELL ME). Of those I can verify, 1996 and 1997 seemed to mark the most new publications with eight each, with an average of five each in other years of the decade. The mid-decade rise may be attributed, at least in the United States, to public policy changes, namely pending welfare cutbacks as well as technological advances such as relatively inexpensive photocopying and desktop publishing and increased visibility, support and inspiration from new global street newspaper organizations (International street Newspaper Association in 1994, followed by the roots of NASNA two years later).

As you know the formats and content of each street newspaper vary depending on the skills and ideology of the creators as well as the community in which its operates. They range from a single pages of hand written copy and stapled newsletters to tabloid newspapers, multi-colored 30-page magazine to on-line only street zines. They address the many faces of homelessness including Vietnam veterans, “low income single mothers, battered women with children who have fled their homes, workers displaced by economic change, runaway youth and abused youngsters, elderly people with no/low fixed incomes, those who suffer...disabilities, substance abusers, people who are transients as a result of seasonal work, domestic strife, or personal crisis, recent immigrant, refugees, aboriginal people who have migrated to the city in order to find work and to escape problems, ex-prisoners and those recently discharged from detention or detoxification centers or mental hospitals.” Through all these variations, street papers share a common desire to help individuals and tell stories about the experiences


Street newspapers in whatever form they take, are tangible testaments to the depth and breadth of eyewitness accounts of a time and place in our history when issues of homelessness and poverty were being framed by participants not just politicians. It is important to be reminded of these human beings who are so often marginalized. These publications bear witness to the variety of sentiments--from pathos to bathos to humor--and individual stories of those struggling to be heard.

An essay from a subscriber to Boston’s Spare Change seems to sum up an important viewpoint on the broader purpose of the street newspaper in our modern society. The reader could be referring to any of your publications:

“Modern industrial society has a tendency to keep us all disconnected, from one another, that will be its downfall, and ours as well. This economy particularly disconnects skilled workers from the unemployed and working poor...It disconnects the ‘have’ from the ‘have nots,” so that, if one does hurt, few on the other side of the economy may even be aware of it. Spare Change is a vital and essential communication tool that helps keep one half of the economy connected to the other half. And it works in both directions...One of the favorite words among advocates these days is empowerment. Everybody want s to become ‘empowered’. Maybe this means different things to different people. Let me suggest that Spare Change and its vendors are already empowered in a way that many do not even realize. Every copy of this newspaper, and every article in the newspaper, is a kind of warrior’s lance, capable of piercing one of those hermetically sealed bubbles which separate the human race, if carefully aimed by the right person to the right person ...if we are to keep humanity connected, it will have to be done one newspaper at a time.”

With groups like NASNA which share stories and information among member and offer spiritual and financial support, this voice can be heard around the world. North America and Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and Australia have papers. Even Asia. (I recently heard about a street publication in Bangkok, Thailand for runaway children escaping indentured prostitution). We don’t know about Central and South America but I’m sure there are publications there as well.

You should be proud of your common commitment in keeping important concerns before the pubic. The power of print means that these publications can be read, reread, exchanged, continually reinforcing and reintroducing the issues. Meetings such as this connect disparate publications and should make you feel less alone. You are part of a global community fighting to change the status quo and create a new social order. This organization should help reinforce your purpose and progress.


As Jeremy Smith writes in his History of the Alternative Press, “Outspoken minorities (who often add up the majority) and oppressed people can create, and often have created, a news mainstream. These movement, and their thousands of publications, have been an ever-present part of our shared history.” There are an estimated to be more than 400 publications worldwide. Your papers represent the collective memory of alternative agenda setting in the media. Street papers are creating a new avenue, so to speak, of communication. Though people, who have no permanent home for a variety of reasons, may be treated poorly by society, they prove every day that there is no poverty of spirit or words as they continue to tell their stories to those who will bother to read them.

One last plea: I urge you to collect and keep a complete set of your publications. Be mindful of your paper’s origins and transformations. Keep the legacy alive with one set to show the local folk and send another set to the largest repository of street papers in the world at the State Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin. Just think, a century from now, after we’re all gone, someone may come across these carefully preserved publications and appreciate how valuable they are in understanding an important social movement. Thank you..