Paper gives opportunity to Hyde Park’s homeless

StreetWise, a program that publishes a weekly newspaper to be sold by homeless or unemployed vendors, provides Chicago’s homeless with a source of income.

By Kelin Hall

Robert, a 5 foot 8-ish man who wears a black quilted jacket, stands in front of the Med. It’s hard to discern his age, as his features are soft and youthful but weathered, framed beneath a hood which almost overshadows his warm, patient half-smile. The StreetWise newspapers held at chest level are the only indication that he wants to sell you something. A man walks by with his daughter. “Hey Robert, how’re you doing?”

“I’m alright, I’m alright,” Robert said. The man took a five dollar bill out of his pocket and handed it to Robert in exchange for a newspaper. Robert reached into his pocket for change, but the man interjected.

“That’s for you, man,” he said. Robert shook his hand, and the man and his daughter continued to walk down the street.

A student soon walked by as well. “StreetWise newspaper today?” Robert asked. But the boy walked by, looking intently at his shoes.

Ten years ago, Robert was in a homeless shelter in Evanston where he heard about StreetWise, a program that publishes a weekly newspaper to be sold by homeless or unemployed vendors. According to the organization’s website, StreetWise is “the only place where you can become employed immediately with nothing more than a desire to work, regardless of your background or situation.”

So Robert attended a mandatory two-hour orientation to learn the dos and don’ts of working as a vendor, a program which stresses that StreetWise employees must be courteous and presentable at all times.

But Robert is beyond courteous—he barely even advertises his presence as people walk by.

“Most people don’t understand what StreetWise is. I don’t want to bother anybody. I’d rather lose a dollar than get their attitude,” he said.

Robert used to read the paper each morning on the way to work and share the news with passersby. But Robert said this method was often met with responses like, “Man, get a job, leave me alone.” To Robert, that’s one of the most insulting comments someone could make. “This is a job,” he said.

One of the goals of the StreetWise program is to help vendors become self-sufficient. However, both Robert and Kenny Turner, a 10-year StreetWise veteran, acknowledge that one of the drawbacks of StreetWise employment is the lack of a reliable paycheck.

The vendors buy each paper from StreetWise for 30 cents and sell them for a dollar, accepting tips if they’re offered. Robert said that in past years, he made as much as $50 to $60 per day selling papers in front of the Medici. But these days, he considers himself lucky if he makes $30. He attributes this drop to the downturn in the economy.

Although Robert used to like his job, his enthusiasm has waned as selling papers has became less lucrative and more frustrating. Both vendors noted that the job is not for those with a short temper or deficiency of will.

“You’ve got to take in everybody’s attitude and keep a smile on your face all the time,” Turner said.

Robert recalled one incident when a man looked him in the eye, took out a dollar, walked by with it in his hand, and looked back mockingly as he put it back in his pocket.

“If that makes his day, then fine, that kind of stuff doesn’t bother me,” he said.

Some Hyde Park employers have recognized that the persistence and amicability necessary to working for StreetWise make for good employees. Turner now bags groceries at Hyde Park Produce. Pizza Capri hired Robert as a deliveryman, but since his car broke down last week, he has returned to selling StreetWise until he has enough money to get his car repaired.

“When Hyde Park Produce was making deliveries to the Medici, they’d see me out there every day, in every kind of weather—winter, summer, fall. They saw that I’m cool with everybody, that I know how to treat people,” Turner said.

When the grocer began remodeling this past winter, Turner filled out an application and eventually received a job offer.

Robert now lives on the South Side. He now takes classes at iO Chicago Theater, an improv comedy studio in Belmont, and hopes to soon be employed in his dream job as a comedian.

“StreetWise helps a whole lot of people,” Turner.