I began this work in the late ‘80s, inspired by Mitch Snyder and the Community for Creative Non-Violence, for their refusal to accept homelessness as being remotely normal or OK. My first arrest was in Washington, D.C. in 1985, where I got to spend three days in D.C. Central Cell Block supporting Snyder’s hunger strike that lasted 51 days.
Snyder lost 57 pounds during that fast, and when asked by a reporter if he was afraid to die, he said, “No. It’s painful, but I have a greater fear of allowing people to languish like animals, and sometimes I’m afraid I’m not doing enough.”
We can all relate to that. Homelessness, at its core, is about the dehumanization of those whose hard lives can often be predicted from birth. The outsiders we are taught to fear and despise, who, at best, are seen as invisible, and often come to doubt their own value as human beings.
When I started the street paper Spare Change in Boston back in 1992, it was as an answer to a few basic questions: How do we organize a movement that includes those hardest hit by growing inequality? How do we help people meet their own basic human needs? How do we reach together across class and race to build a better world?
Others were asking similar questions. The early ‘90s were a period of inspiration and invention. Papers like Journal l’Itinéraire in Montreal, StreetWise in Chicago, and the Big Issue in London were the first wave of the modern street-paper movement.
When we started these papers, we often didn’t see what others were doing. We all took this idea, pioneered in 1989 by Street News in New York, and then we made it up as we went along.
And we found that we weren’t alone, that we were part of a movement. The Big Issue created the International Network of Streetpapers in 1994, and the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA) was founded in 1997 by StreetWise, the National Coalition for the Homeless and Real Change. And now, we are all part of the same movement.
We have not always agreed with each other. At the founding NASNA conference, for example, about a quarter of the delegates walked out of the by-laws plenary after losing a vote on consensus versus majority rule.
But we’ve since learned that our diversity is our strength, and that what we have in common trumps our differences.
Each of our vendors is a hub of human relationships. Each newspaper is a stone thrown into a pond, which creates ripples that have effect. And these ripples accumulate to form a vast movement for human dignity and economic justice.
And our roots are deeper than many of us realize.
Our roots are in the economic disruption of industrialization and the dislocations this created, and these reach back to papers like The War Cry, founded by the Salvation Army in London in 1879; to Hobo News, founded in 1915 in Cincinnati and sold by the International Workers of the World across the country; and to the Catholic Worker, founded in 1933 in New York by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day.
All of these papers gave voice to the voiceless, and they were sold on the street as a survival strategy by the economically marginalized.
My airplane book has been a biography of Peter Maurin, the philosopher-saint behind the Catholic Worker movement. This has been a better match as a conference read than I imagined.
In 1933, the Catholic Worker published its first issue of 2,500 copies for $57. I’m sure that many of us can relate to this as well. A year later, they had a nationwide circulation of 35,000. Five years later, it was 165,000 and international.
This is a growth curve we can all envy. And here’s the thing. I can assure you that it was not owed to the brilliance of its business plan. They couldn’t have been less interested in that. The Catholic Worker was a prophetic voice that spoke to the enormous gap between what is and what should be, and it ran on pure passion.
They stood up for human dignity and were about the reinvention of human relationships. They saw the emptiness of consumer society, and they worked toward a world where everyone could find dignity in work and in caring relationships with others.
This sort of vision and audacity is a part of our history that we need to own.
We don’t need to be saints like Maurin, committed to lives of celibacy and poverty, and living like medieval, mendicant monks. But we do need to speak to the tragic gap, the difference between what is and what should be.
We need to be practical prophets, who not only live at the center of our passion for a better world, but can also write a business plan. Who can build inclusive organizations that improve and endure, but never, ever, become boring.
We end this conference, our 20th celebration of the INSP, knowing that we are all in this together, learning from each other, healing a broken world, one vendor and one newspaper at a time.
We are a movement built upon love, and that is an amazing and awe-inspiring thing. We should never forget this.