If you're wandering around downtown Hartford this week and someone tries to sell you a copy of "HARTbeat of the Street," please consider shelling out $1.
The road to HARTbeat has been long and strange. Hartford's new street newspaper, produced and sold by people who are homeless, have been homeless, or who work with the homeless is the brainchild of Rabbi Donna Berman, Charter Oak Cultural Center's executive director.
The idea has precedent. Street papers are a proud tradition in places such as Los Angeles, Washington and New York. By operating as a business, the organizations give struggling people a hand up. Writers, photographers and graphic artists familiar with the street produce the newspaper, and then vendors buy the sheets for a reduced rate — say, 25 cents — and then turn around and sell them for $1 or so. They keep the profits.
For the rest of us, the news consumers, street papers give us a perspective we wouldn't otherwise have.
Berman is the kind of leader who shoots ideas off like sparks. It's hard to resist her, but when she first talked about a street paper — months ago —- I politely said no. I've written about homeless issues enough to know that things rarely go according to plan. I think I said I was too busy, but then, isn't everybody? The rabbi did not push.
Fast-forward to June. I was in Nashville, taking a break from a conference, when I saw on a corner an extremely animated man holding up a tabloid-sized newspaper. Say what you will about my dying industry. I am still addicted to print.
I bought the latest copy of "The Contributor," a 24-page newspaper that, says the masthead, offers "diverse perspectives on homelessness" and "genuine opportunities for advancement." Nashville had just suffered what residents were calling a flood of biblical proportions. The press in general covered the damage to tourist attractions like Ryman Auditorium. "The Contributor" covered the disaster from a tent city that was flooded out. It was heartbreaking and real, and after I bought a couple of copies, I fumbled for my phone to call Rabbi Berman and leave one of those messages that require explanations later. I know I said something about getting a message from God in the form of a man named Clark.
Back in Hartford I apologized to the rabbi for not being enthusiastic earlier. At our first official un-named-street-paper meeting, we got one man — Hector. We spent most of the time listening to his story, but he sounded enthusiastic about participating. At subsequent meetings, sometimes five people showed, and sometimes none.
Meanwhile, Nathan Fox of Partnership for Strong Communities was in California, where he picked up a couple of street newspapers in San Francisco and Berkeley. He'd met Berman through an earlier mentoring program and when he saw a notice in the Courant about her idea, he called.
At about the same time, Michael Proscia graduated from Penn State with a degree in architecture. While looking for a job in his chosen field, he began volunteering at Charter Oak. If you went to the center's recent Sacred Ground opening, you saw some of his work. He signed on to the newspaper, too.
The two men then took the idea and ran with it, and this week, you'll see the fruits of their labors — as well as the fruits of people like Ron, Charles, Joan and others. Vendors will sell the first edition for $1, and they'll keep the profits. That's our business plan so far.
The first edition is just four pages. I think we'll have more in subsequent editions. If you want to know more, call the center at 860-249-1207, or email email@example.com. If you want to get involved, the group meets at Hartford's downtown library (room No. 8) at 3:30 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday. We would value your input.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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