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Activism: Group hopes to start homeless newspaper in the city 

Erica Smith hopes to give homeless people in Pittsburgh a voice with a new newspaper they would write for and distribute. There's just one hitch: Selling the paper could require each vendor to get a license that costs about as much as an overnight stay in a luxury hotel.

A Pittsburgh ordinance requires anyone who is peddling -- walking around selling things on the streets -- to obtain a license, which spells out where, when and for how long they can sell on public grounds. Smith says she's been told by the city that vendors will be charged $307 apiece for the licenses.

"That's my biggest bone of contention right now," says Smith, a coordinator and case manager for Operation Save-A-Life, a homeless outreach service. "We simply can't afford to pay $307 per person. That just isn't going to happen."

Dan Cipriani -- the chief of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Building Inspection, which issues the permits -- says he hasn't heard from Smith yet, but says it's possible to waive or reduce the license fee.

"On the surface, it certainly sounds like something that could be done," he says. "The thing you run up against is every time you do something like this, someone else wants you to waive fees. ... It's not something we take lightly."

The paper will be known as Word on the Street; like similar publications elsewhere, it will include material written by and for homeless people. Often they blend first-person tales from the street with informative articles on social services. Such papers have a threefold goal: giving voice to an often-unrepresented community; alerting the homeless to community resources; and providing some participants with income as vendors.

An anonymous North Side couple contributed $1,500 to Smith's venture, and Smith says Community Human Services Corporation, which sponsors Operation Save-A-Life, has matched that gift. Smith says the paper has also lined up four advertisers so far.

She hopes to print 300 copies of an inaugural issue due out in August. The articles for the first issue are written, but she can't purchase the layout software she needs until CHSC's next fiscal year, which begins in a month. But her main problem remains the licenses. Word on the Street will follow a common business model for street newspapers: Vendors will buy the papers for 25 cents and then sell them for a suggested donation of $1, making 75 cents on each paper. That's a healthy profit margin, but a vendor would have to sell 400 copies -- more than Smith plans to print of the entire first edition -- to recoup the cost of a single license.

Cipriani says he would need a written request to waive the fee, but adds that the final decision isn't up to him.

"I've contacted the mayor's office to talk to someone from finance [to see] if that's something they want to consider," he says. "I certainly couldn't do something like that unilaterally."

The peddling ordinance is designed to keep vendors from becoming a nuisance by regulating things like loud noises (you can't "blow a horn" to hawk your wares). It also requires vendors to sign a statement indemnifying the city against any damages that may occur during vending.

Additionally, "it gives us the ability to regulate who's actually out there," Cipriani explains. "We do background checks on people who do that. ... We're not trying to discourage people from doing this, but we're trying to regulate this in some manner."

Smith says she's hoping to work out some sort of discount on the fees. And in any case, there is a precedent for the city to look the other way when it comes to homeless papers.

In 1998, students from Carnegie Mellon University teamed up with the CHSC to produce another street publication, StreetVoice. That paper was able to skirt the peddler license, says Brian Mendelssohn, then a CMU student who helped produce StreetVoice. City council "unofficially, with the police, said, 'Do your thing,'" he recalls.

Those who worked on StreetVoice -- like Mendelssohn and Sharon Thorp, its former editor -- were optimistic to hear their effort was being revived.

The earlier paper "was magic," says Thorp, who is also a former director of Wood Street Commons, which provides affordable housing Downtown to low-income individuals. "There were people who ordinarily, for various reasons, may not have been employable. But on the street they were acceptable. ... We instructed people on how to present themselves."

During its run, StreetVoice grew in circulation and evolved in design.

"The reception in the city was very positive," Mendelssohn says. "We started out with 1,000 [papers] for the first publication; we sold that out in a week." Within a year, he says, StreetVoice had increased its circulation to 8,000.

What ended up being the last issue of StreetVoice -- its 13th, published in November 1999 -- gave no indication that the paper was going away.

Shortly after that issue, Thorp left Community Human Services for another job, and no one stepped in to fill the void.

"The homeless community was pretty upset because there were some vendors that were making $100 a day, which is pretty substantial," Thorp says. "I would see some of the folks who were vendors and they would say, 'What's going to happen? Where's the paper?'" Since then, Thorp says, there have been occasional "whispers" about establishing a new street paper, but nothing ever materialized.

Still, Pittsburgh's "alternate employment opportunity," as StreetVoice dubbed itself, was not easily forgotten. And Smith, who has already retained a managing editor and production manager for the new effort, hopes it will live up to -- and outlive -- its predecessor.

The trick, Smith says, is "just to keep advertising and keep getting quality content. It'll work. I'm a very faithful person."

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