Teaching the Homeless to Fish

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:57

    Now there's BIGnews, a pocket-sized glossy. (There's also bignewsmag.com.) It features artwork and photography, short fiction, writer interviews, a monthly column by Ben Cheever, a calendar of events and Too Much Coffee Man strips. (For the record, I was recently interviewed for the magazine, which was how I first came across it.)

    BIGnews' first issue came out in April, as a side project of Grand Central Neighborhood Social Services, a nonprofit center founded in the late 80s by Jeffrey Grunberg.

    "We have to get the cobwebs out of a lot of people who are homeless right now," he told me, at his office on E. 43rd St. "Ninety-five percent will tell you that they want to work, and employment is their way out of homelessness. Problem is that few, if any, have references. And so many have problems that prevent employment. Most alcoholics aren't homeless. Neither are most drug users. Neither are most poor people, criminals, idiots... Short tempers probably cause more homelessness than anything else. Your family turns against you, you get court orders of protection. A good man loses his temper and loses his woman. You blow up at your boss, you get yourself in a real fix."

    And that's the idea?to help people out of that fix by getting them to work again. "A program like this," he said, "with incentives and choices, is about four times as successful as those others. Our agency is designed around making referrals, making housing placements, finding jobs. This is just an employment program, and a very exciting one."

    Right now, there are about 40 homeless papers throughout the country. ("It's a pretty unknown movement.") They've formed the North American Street Newspapers Association, or NASNA. Yet BIGnews has modeled itself after a British magazine, Big Issue, which sells about 150,000 copies every week. The difference, according to Grunberg, is that Big Issue "started with a magazine, and hoped to grow social service agencies to support their vendors. We started with the agencies, and the magazine is now something we're getting into."

    To help pull BIGnews together, he hired his brother Ron. Ron Grunberg was a reporter in the 70s, working for CBS, Voice of America, Newsday, the Boston Globe and others. He got fed up with it, dropped out and started driving a cab, which he did until last year. He occasionally contributes stories to New York Press.

    "I believe that we owe [our success] to our efforts to make the employment program work, and to get the best content possible," Ron says. "It's exciting to go through the world of literature and writers, contact them, tell them just what we're doing, ask permission." And he's done quite well?apart from the Cheever column and an interview with the late Jerzy Kosinski, they've also discovered some remarkable new talent?particularly a man by the name of Robert Sylvester, who has a monthly column.

    Here's how the program works. Each new homeless vendor goes through an orientation, is given a photo ID, handed 10 free copies of the magazine to sell and posted in a specific territory. If the vendor wants to keep selling after those first 10 are gone, he can return to the center, buy as many copies as he wants at half price, and then sell them to the public for a dollar. Vendors, Jeffrey explained, "are in business for themselves?they're not working for us."

    And before they're given those first 10 copies, each vendor also has to agree to a code of conduct, which stipulates that they can't sell BIGnews on public transportation, they can't panhandle while selling, can't use any kind of abusive language and can't sell anything else while selling BIGnews.

    To date, there are 340 vendors signed up, who are moving about 5000 copies a month?all of that through word of mouth. Not a penny has been spent on marketing.

    I had a chance, while at the GCNSS offices, to talk with two of their most successful vendors, Diane Jackson and Aesha Jackson (no relation). Diane, who was profiled in the most recent issue, is an older woman, almost grandmotherly in her manners. Aesha, in her early 20s, is petite and soft-spoken.

    "I've known these people forever," said Diane, who's been homeless on three separate occasions. "They always have something for somebody who wants to work. I started out passing Upward [GCNSS' newsletter by and for the homeless] on the street and stuffing envelopes. Then I asked Jeffrey about outreach. I'm a recovering addict, so I always wanted to help people like that."

    Aesha left home in Jersey shortly after her father died, and ended up on the streets of New York. She found herself at the center's shelter in the basement of St. Agnes Church shortly after being released from Rikers. "I used to go to Covenant House," she said, "but once I turned 21, I couldn't go there anymore, so I come here... There's a lot of love here."

    Now she says she can make as much as $50 a day selling BIGnews.

    "I work everywhere. I did have a post, but I was never there, I was always walking around. But I guess I was so good doing that they just let me."

    "We ask them where they would like to sell," Jeffrey explained, "and as long as no one else has taken that spot, that's fine. We'd love people to pick Midtown, because we have to train the public to see vendors, and that'll just take time."

    Diane and Aesha also do a lot of recruiting at local soup kitchens.

    "When we pick the vendors," Diane said, "we make sure they're not too dirty, that they don't look psychotic, that they don't smell like alcohol. We got to pick and choose our people. If they're too dirty, no one's going to accept a magazine from them, they're scared a bug'll jump on them or something."

    Ironically, one of the problems that Aesha has run into is the fact that she doesn't look the part at all. She dresses neatly, she's well-groomed. "Some people are really rude for the simple fact that you're homeless but don't look homeless. I've gotten turned down for a lot of BIGnews for the simple fact that I don't look homeless. Why should I look homeless? There's clothing [at St. Agnes], showers, soap."

    "You can have a good reason for a bad decision," Jeffrey said of most of the homeless he's dealt with. "They blame themselves for the mess they're in and they want a job. That's American. We all do that."

    Most of the people he encounters on the street, he said, don't want to be told they have a problem, and don't want to be told what to do. "We talk jobs, and we're all about letting them decide."

    The magazine, he emphasized, exists currently as a side project for GCNSS. "We're not funded to do BIGnews?we're funded to do outreach and social services. We have a $3 million budget. Two million is city-funded, and the rest comes from a variety of sources?and our budget doesn't yet allow for BIGnews when it doesn't directly provide a bed or a meal for someone. It's an employment project. And the main reason it exists is to get people to work."

    "I like this job," Diane told me. "It's a really good feeling... Once your attitude changes, everything about you changes. Now I'm a happy person. Every morning when I get up, I'm happy."