February 7, 2003

StreetWise confronting illegitimate vendors

Administrators at StreetWise, a publication that distributes newspapers to Chicago's homeless for resale to the public, have been collaborating with police officials to organize a plan that will rid the streets of con men and panhandlers posing as licensed StreetWise vendors. StreetWise is currently confronting unlicensed vendors in Hyde Park, forcing them to either become legitimate or stop selling the publication.

"I've been going to CAPS [Community and Police Strategies] meetings to discuss the issue of people who are not StreetWise vendors selling StreetWise in Hyde Park. It's a big problem," said Gregory Pritchett, a distribution manager at StreetWise. "We're planning a big sweep in Hyde Park during February to get unlicensed vendors off the streets."

While the initiative will encompass all of Hyde Park, officials are particularly concerned with peddlers on 57th Street near the Medici. A woman named Sharmain--a heavyset, outspoken woman who solicited pedestrians close to Kinkos--has already been taken into custody by police.

Unlicenced vending has become prevalent outside Osco on 53rd Street and around the Red Line train stop on 55th Street.

"These are people who do not want to follow the rules. There have been cases where people have tried to charge $50 for a single paper, or tried selling the same paper 50 times. This behavior is just conning and hustling, not legitimate business," Pritchett said.

Although anyone is welcome to become a licensed vendor, potential candidates must undergo a two-week orientation period before receiving a StreetWise badge that signifies their official affiliation with the organization. These badges are orange, have a picture of the vendor, and are supposed to be worn around the neck of the vendor at all times while he or she is selling the newspaper.

Even with this system of identification, many students have had unfortunate experiences attempting to buy StreetWise from illegitimate vendors.

The most commonly reported incidents involve panhandlers who take money from students and simply walk away without giving them a newspaper.

Other encounters have been more confrontational.

"One time I bought a StreetWise from a man sitting across the aisle from me on the CTA," said Julie Jack-Scott, a third-year in the College. "After five minutes he asked if he could see something in it, even though he had a stack of them on his lap. When I refused he got much more forceful until I got off at the next stop."

Pritchett urges community members to be certain they are dealing with authentic vendors.

Supporting panhandlers who are posing as salespeople not only hurts the reputation and pocketbooks of those trying to become legitimate businessmen, Pritchett said, but also discourages these impostors from becoming licensed vendors themselves.

"Always ask to see a vendor's badge when you are buying a copy of StreetWise," Pritchett said, adding that if the vendor only has one or two copies on them, he is probably not a legitimate vendor.

Many community members still praise StreetWise for its creative and helpful mission and maintain that these occasional problems are not the fault of the organization. "StreetWise is an interesting and proactive model for helping the homeless that I believe it is a genuinely good thing," said Hank Webber, vice president of government and community affairs at the University. "There is a very thin line between helping the homeless and yet not encouraging dependent behavior. The people at StreetWise do a good job of balancing this dilemma."

University officials acknowledged that panhandling, in a variety of forms, has been a problem in Hyde Park for a long time. Most officials agreed however, that StreetWise was an effective means of understanding and controlling the problem of false vendors in Hyde Park and throughout the city. "StreetWise understands the problem and does the best they can," Webber said.

StreetWise started as a small project in 1992 and today has over 3600 vendors in Chicago with a circulation of 25,000. These vendors are primarily concentrated downtown and on the North Side, with only about 300 vendors working in the southwest region of Chicago. An estimated 50 vendors sell StreetWise in the Hyde Park and Jackson Park neighborhoods.

Not all vendors are impoverished and destitute. In fact, only 12 percent of StreetWise salesmen live in homeless shelters, according to their Web site.

Vendors purchase newspapers for 35 cents and sell them for a dollar, resulting in an annual income of anywhere from $5,000-$20,000.

In addition to providing a means of self-sufficiency, the StreetWise organization aims to teach the homeless skills that are essential to reentering the business world. Pritchett himself was a former vendor who used to sell newspapers in front of the office building in which he currently works.

StreetWise plans to launch an expansion program in 2003, actively searching for new locations where vendors can establish a business. "There are a lot of other places to sell StreetWise other than outside office buildings and golf courses," Pritchett said.

The fate of this new campaign could rest on StreetWise's ability to control these unlicensed vendors, as volunteering and fundraising rely a large part on popular community support.