During the months Joan Artis lived in a homeless shelter, she saw the good in people who were down on their luck.
"There are people out there who used to hold full-time jobs, but due to whatever problems they have, they become homeless," she said. "Some of them are educated. A lot of them have good hearts."
She wants others to see it, too.
Artis, who moved last year from a Middletown shelter to transitional housing, is part of a small group that has set out to share the stories of Hartford's homeless in the city's first "street" newspaper, Beat of the Street.
The newspaper - written by the homeless, the formerly homeless and those close to them - aims to expose the challenges they face and, eventually, help to raise money to support them.
Artis said she's frustrated with the assumptions some people make about the homeless.
"I'm trying to break the stereotypes of homeless people," the 57-year-old, who now lives in a Hartford apartment and regularly writes for the newspaper, said. "I've met some really good people who have turned their lives around. I saw a lot of people who care."
"There's a lot of good out there that people don't understand."
Though still in its infancy, the paper has been circulated at some homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Staff members are accepting donations and beginning to take subscription orders.
"It's gotten some traction already, and it's only going to grow," said Rabbi Donna Berman, executive director of the Charter Oak Cultural Center, who had the idea for the paper. "I think once people see this is successful, they'll want to support it."
'A UNIQUE WINDOW'
Berman was in Washington, D.C., three years ago when a hawker selling a street newspaper approached her.
"I thought, 'Oh my gosh, we need to do this in Hartford,' " she recalled.
Berman began recruiting others for the effort last summer, and in November they produced their first issue under the title Hartbeat of the Street. They later dropped the "hart."
Although it's gotten off to a slow start - their third issue was last month - Berman said she hopes to eventually make it a monthly paper.
Printed on 81/2-by-11-inch paper, Beat of the Street includes color photographs of the homeless, first-person perspectives about living on the street and information about shelters and services.
The staff of about eight sells it for $1 a copy where they can, when they can, and so far has raised about $1,300 in donations, she said. They also have picked up a handful of subscribers.
Most of its writers are homeless, or were at one point, Berman said. Others involved have worked closely with the homeless.
The paper is meant to "put a face" on the issue of homelessness, getting people to think about a problem they might otherwise ignore, Berman said.
Writers for the paper seek to foster understanding and empathy and inspire action among the public and state lawmakers, she said.
"The people writing for this paper are really experts in homelessness," Berman said. "They provide a unique window into the world of people who are homeless."
The paper also accepts free-lance work, and sometimes runs articles under anonymous bylines.
"Some people want to be under the radar," Berman said. "They want their thoughts known, but not their identities."
Staff members are unpaid, but Berman said she hopes to compensate her writers once the paper brings in more money. She has also applied for some grants.
One challenge of getting a street newspaper off the ground in Hartford is the lack of foot traffic, she said. Fewer people walk the streets in Connecticut's capital than in other urban centers, such as New York or Washington, D.C.
"Vendors in these other cities have the potential to make a lot of money" hawking newspapers, Berman said. "We don't have that."
Instead, she said, organizers hope to gain followers through subscriptions and by selling the paper at city events.
Berman is also considering a sales method employed by other street newspapers in the country: recruiting homeless people to sell the paper. Homeless hawkers in several other cities, like Nashville, Tenn., begin by getting stacks of newspapers for free, then selling them on the street. Once they turn a profit, the paper charges them 25 cents a copy, and the hawkers sell them for $1 on the street, keeping all of the proceeds.
"We're looking at all of our options," Berman said. "It's a difficult thing to pull off."
When Tasha French started The Contributor, Nashville's monthly street newspaper, in 2007, she wanted to raise money for the homeless and tell their stories. But she set out to achieve more.
"The other part of our mission was [to inspire] face-to-face interaction between people who have experienced homelessness and those who have not," said French, executive director of The Contributor and president of the North American Street Newspaper Association, a nonprofit trade association that includes about 30 street papers.
"It gives people a means to interact with someone in need in a safer environment," she said. "That face-to-face interaction is life-changing."
Breaking down barriers is something Beat of the Street organizers are also looking to accomplish. Through their articles and pictures, staff members said they want to dissolve the stereotypes associated with homelessness.
Nathan Fox, who helps edit and lay out articles for the paper, said some people have cast the homeless in "a negative light," labeling them as lazy, dangerous or scary.
"At the end of the day, the fact is that homelessness is much more varied than your old-school image of the scraggly guy in disheveled clothing," Fox said. "It's not all an extreme form of poverty. Some people are just teetering on the edge of poverty. It really can happen to anyone."
Harry Mitchell, who has been homeless for three years, writes a column for the paper called Harry's Heart-2-Hart. He said he's trying to underscore the plight of people like him.
In one column, published in February, Mitchell describes what it feels like to be asked to leave a shelter on a winter morning: "You are left wandering aimlessly through the frigid streets looking like some kind of futuristic vagabond ... in search of shelter and sustenance."
Mitchell said he hopes his readers might gain a better understanding of the homeless and "not be so quick to judge."
"You're almost looked at as a third-class citizen," said Mitchell, 48, who lives at the South Park Inn, a shelter and transitional living program in Hartford. "Homeless people don't have enough of a voice in this city. I think it's a problem that's grossly ignored."
Berman said the paper is meant to get readers to think about homelessness in new ways.
"This newspaper gives people who aren't homeless entree into this world," she said. "It's frightening and it's devastating, but I think it could be remedied if we have the courage to really start looking at it. This is not an unsolvable problem."
THE CHALLENGES AHEAD
The average life of a street newspaper is three issues, French said.
"Since I got involved with NASNA, some [newspapers] have fallen off the radar," she said. "It's a tough go."
But others, like The Contributor, have had luck. In its first year, French said, the Nashville paper circulated about 1,000 copies per month. In March, it sold 134,000 copies, she said.
Circulation grew as more hawkers signed on and people became more interested in the paper, French said. More than 400 hawkers currently sell the paper.
"I don't discourage them," French said about those who want to create a new paper. "It's a radical thing to start a street newspaper, but there are people who can give you advice. It's been done before."
Founders of street papers have several options for getting started, she said. Some publish their paper as an insert in other newspapers. Some are completely independent.
Beat of the Street staff members have different ideas about how to develop and market the paper, but they meet regularly to resolve details. One member suggested that it run as an insert in the Hartford Advocate; others want it to stand on its own, as it does now.
Eventually, organizers said, they hope to stock the paper at the Legislative Office Building with hopes of reaching lawmakers who could influence change.
Another goal is to circulate the paper in the suburbs so people there can learn more about the homeless.
"It's early," Fox said. "We're still trying to figure out our identity."
To learn more about Beat of the Street or to read some of the paper's articles, visit beatofthestreet.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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