Planting Groundcover News
A homeless newspaper takes root
by Jan Schlain
Published in September, 2010
Ann Arbor's newest newspaper may not have the budget or coverage of AnnArbor.com, but it does have at least one motivated vendor and a lot of heart.
The first issue of Groundcover News came out in mid-July. It has news, photos, poetry, puzzles, ads, and a list of services for the homeless. Which makes sense, since the vendors who sell it around town for a $1 donation are homeless themselves.
Susan Beckett, a former software engineer and teacher, is the paper's founder and chief volunteer. She was visiting her daughter in Seattle last summer when she bought a newspaper from a homeless person outside a coffee shop. When she returned home she discussed the idea of starting something similar here with members of several groups, including RESULTS, the social action committee at Temple Beth Emeth, and Organizing for America. "One OFA leader, Tad Wysor, introduced me to a young man, Marquise Williams, who had expressed interest in helping those in poverty find their voice," says Beckett. "Marquise and I visited various community meals, described the paper and asked people to give us their contact information if they were interested in participating in any way."
A friend introduced Beckett to Laurie Lounsbury, a former reporter and editor for papers in Petoskey and Charlevoix, who volunteered to become the paper's editor. "Marquise, Laurie, and I met to do some initial formulation, then I contacted everyone who had ever expressed any interest, and we met at First Baptist Church," Beckett recalls. "I organized the meeting with help from Ron Gregg, a parishioner at First Baptist who manages the interfaith outreach mailing list and organized the meeting to address the homeless situation." There, she says, they defined "our core values, mission, and operating principles." They included the mission statement in the paper's first issue: "to create opportunity and a voice for low-income people while taking action to end homelessness and poverty."
They also chose the name--which in full is Groundcover News and
Solutions from the Ground Up. Lounsbury suggested "Groundcover"--"it's really local news that starts from the ground up," she explains.
There are more than 100 similar "street newspapers" in cities around the world. The North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA) and the editor of Toledo Street offered advice, and a paper in Washington, DC, shared computer files, including training programs and tracking forms. A Toledo homeless action group called 1Matters donated $1,000 to print the first issue.
It includes some powerful stories. "Fourteen. That's how old I was when I hit the streets in Ann Arbor, Michigan," an anonymous contributor writes. "Fourteen years old, with not a penny in my pocket. 1972. I didn't leave home voluntarily. My mom and stepdad threw me out. They had their reasons."
The arts section includes "Where we are--a poem" by Fiona Owens. It begins:
after we leave
who will love the light in morning's
A back page column by Lounsbury invites readers to "dance your socks off and still have time to see the sunset." Her story about the Friday happy hour concerts at Live at PJ's shares space with one of the paper's few ads, for Elmo's Main Street T-shirts.
"Elmo [Morales] actually made a huge donation of the three-pocket aprons for the vendors," Beckett says. "I convinced him to let us run an ad for him. He just wanted to do a good thing." Beckett handles ad sales, and though she didn't sell as many as she'd like, she did manage to bring in some revenue: "Roos Roast paid for their ad."
While Groundcover News covers the homeless, its primary goal is to help them get back on their feet. Vendors get their first ten papers free and pay 25c each for additional copies, so they earn 75c for each one they sell.
"We have fifteen certified vendors, and about twelve of them are actively selling," says Beckett. "We believe twenty-five would be a good number at this stage of our development."
After the first issue came out, Beckett attended the NASNA conference in Chicago, where she collected samples of other towns' papers. Larger cities and more mature papers (like those in Chicago and Seattle) have hundreds of vendors, she says. Beckett thinks that as the paper expands into more of Washtenaw County, it will be able to accommodate more salespeople.
But she points out that it's not so easy to get vendors. They need to be reliable and healthy enough to stand on streets for hours, engaging passersby and selling papers. That's particularly hard for people who are sleeping "in the rough." Between the heat, the humidity, and the mosquitoes this summer, she says, vendors living outdoors had a hard time sleeping and were too exhausted to stand for long periods of time.
Vendor Tony S. (he asked that his full name not be used) didn't start life as one of the "housing insecure." Raised in Grosse Pointe, the son of a lawyer, "I started to have a drinking problem when I was thirteen," he says. His high school knew he was drinking but rather than get him help, they sent him home. He eventually went to prison for burglarizing a home with friends.
He resumed drinking after he got out, but in 1978 he sobered up at Dawn Farm. He moved to Dallas, started a business, married, and moved back to Michigan. He got divorced, remarried, and started another business. But at age forty-nine, he got in financial trouble and started drinking again--and doing crack cocaine too. He lost his second wife, his business, and his home.
Tony returned to Dawn Farm and sobered up, but now homeless, he was apprehended for trespassing earlier this year. That turned up an old warrant for his arrest from Macomb County. When he got out of jail this spring, he ended up back at the Delonis Center shelter.
His case manager at the shelter got him a four-day job working at the art fair. Since then, he's been selling papers--and now, at age fifty-two, he is one of Groundcover's best sellers.
All vendors go through an orientation, including training in the paper's code of ethics. Among other things, it requires vendors to ask for no more than the $1 donation that pays for the paper, to treat customers respectfully, and not to "sell Groundcover News under the influence of drugs or alcohol."
When Tony was ready to start selling, he met Beckett at the Ann Arbor District Library. "She gave me ten papers," he says. "It took me an hour and a half to sell those. The next day I asked her for a hundred." While he makes 75c per copy, he says, "the tips are crazy! People are really generous."
He's had success selling in various spots downtown. He often wears a New York Yankees cap his stepson gave him, an Ann Arbor Art Fair T-shirt, and shorts. He leans over and tells a reporter, "smell me"--with his recent earnings he went to Sam's Club for new clothes and to Briarwood for cologne. "I bought myself breakfast, too, at the Fleetwood."
He proudly mentions approaching a woman trying to get her son to the right building at the U-M. When he asked her if she'd buy his paper for a dollar, she replied, "put a map in it, and I'll buy it." He told this to Beckett, so for the second issue, he says, "Susan's putting a map of Ann Arbor in."
While the plan is to get the second paper out early in September, printing it will depend on sales of the first issue. They printed 6,200 copies, which turned out to be more than their vendors could sell, Beckett says--but "who knew?"
They've applied for a Pepsi "Refresh Everything" grant. "We'd like the paper to be basically self sustaining, but that $25,000 Pepsi grant would help us scale up much more quickly," Beckett says. As the Observer went to press, however, they had sold only about 800 copies of the first issue, too few to print the next one. "We've got a lot left, says Beckett. "We'll need to sell another 1,000 newspapers to even be able to do a small run."
Tony is doing his part--he estimates that he's personally sold 500 papers so far. "I compliment people on the street. I said to one woman, 'You look like Farah Fawcett,' and she turned around and gave me a dollar...sometimes you just say the right thing." He adds, "When they say no, I say 'I'll look for you next time.'"
For safety, the shelter holds his earnings. He's still living there, too. He'd hoped to land a temporary apartment through what he calls "the Obama thing"--a federal program that lets homeless people move into vacant apartments for just the cost of utilities--but an old, unpaid DTE bill prevented that. He continues to meet with his Delonis caseworker to pay down his old debts and attempt to fulfill the true mission of Groundcover--to help the homeless transition to a "real" home and "real" work.
In the meantime, Ann Arbor has a new newspaper, and Tony and the other vendors see some hope for a future. On a beautiful Friday morning in August, Beckett and Sandy Schmoker, a retired teacher who works on distribution and vendor training, hand out papers to their vendors as they leave the free breakfast at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church. Afterward, they talk for a while in the church parking lot. Says Beckett, "It's the Tonys of the world that make this worthwhile."
[Originally published in September, 2010.]
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