WASHINGTON - Newspapers produced and sold by homeless people in dozens of American cities are flourishing even as the deepening recession endangers conventional newspapers. At many of them, circulation is growing, along with the sales forces dispatched to sell the papers to passers-by.
The recession has hardly been a windfall for these street papers, most of which are nonprofits that survive on grants and donations as well as circulation revenue. But the economic downturn has heightened interest in their offbeat coverage and driven new vendors to their doors.
"It's a low barrier. You walk in, get a job, and turn around that afternoon and start earning money, as opposed to being one of 150 people waiting in line for one waitressing job," said Joanne Zuhl, managing editor of Street Roots in Portland, Ore. The paper's monthly sales have increased to 16,000 from 11,000 in a few months, while the number of people selling the paper has jumped to nearly 100 from 60.
Circulation of Seattle's paper, Real Change, neared 72,000 in December, its highest level. And at The Denver Voice, 117 people attended sales training sessions in February alone.
Paper managers and their vendors say the job provides a special freedom, a sense of personal responsibility that helps homeless and impoverished people build the confidence they need to rejoin the mainstream work force. Each vendor's success rides on his own innovation and gumption.
At Street Sense in Washington, the paper's executive director, Laura Osuri, said that in recent months "higher quality" vendors - newly needy, and not quite so down-and-out - have helped push papers out the door faster than ever.
At twice-weekly training sessions held in one of several small rooms the paper rents from the Church of the Epiphany, L. Morrow, an old hand, uses role-playing to teach salesmanship.
"Say good morning to everyone. Wake them up," Mr. Morrow said during a recent session. "Be vocal, brother. If you are standing there like a statue, you're not going to get paid."
The publications, which once employed mainly the chronically homeless, offer a survival strategy for those who, for the first time, are checking into shelters, relying on friends' couches or struggling to pay rent.
In the last six months, the Portland paper, like others around the country, has started to see a new type of vendor - chefs, park rangers and construction workers who have lost stable jobs or crucial part-time work as the economy crumbled.
Often, the papers' managers said, new vendors have high school diplomas or even college degrees. Now, in a year when several traditional newspapers have closed, they sell street papers to make ends meet while they look for employment.
Kevin Bynum lost his carpentry job and employer-provided housing in mid-December. The news came suddenly, amid a heavy snowstorm just before Christmas that forced him into a long line for beds at a rescue mission in Portland.
"As soon as the snow melted, I pretty much decided I needed to figure out a way to get some money in my pocket," said Mr. Bynum, who has been selling Street Roots since January. "It's definitely turned my life around. It's not really a handout. It's helping someone help themselves."
Mr. Bynum says that if he works 10 hours every day, he can sell nearly 200 papers a week at $1 a copy. Each paper costs him 25 cents, leaving him with a couple of hundred dollars in profit, including some fairly large tips he gets from repeat customers. In off-peak hours, he drops résumés at restaurants and bookstores, but the help-wanted signs are rare.
Even in this economic climate, most papers reported a steady flow of contributions. Real Change in Seattle had an increase in donations and "tremendous donor loyalty" in 2008, said Timothy Harris, the paper's executive director and founder.
Street papers' coverage of poverty seems to have attracted interest lately, said Serge Lareault, chairman of the International Network of Street Papers and editor of L'Itineraire in Montreal.
But in Washington, Street Sense has struggled to meet the elevated demand. Donations to support its work have dropped nearly 25 percent below last year's level, forcing the paper to switch to cheaper paper and even to consider raising the price vendors pay for each copy, to 35 cents from 25 cents.
For many vendors, Street Sense has done more than fill wallets. The paper has allowed them to develop a community of customers and colleagues as well as marketable skills.
Jeffery McNeil, who started selling Street Sense nearly two years ago, now has frequent bylines. In a recent issue, he wrote about the sales strategy - a bit of show biz, a little luck, a suit and plenty of time studying Google maps - that made him one of the paper's top vendors. He says his goal is to begin a street paper in Baltimore, where the recession has increased homelessness.
Carlton Johnson, another vendor here, came to write poetry and make some extra cash. Soon he was producing graphics, designing pages and selling advertisements.
"Out of it, I just got so much more," said Mr. Johnson, who is self-publishing a book of 100 poems. "It's become like a string of pearls."