- Kirsten Ballard
Eric Falquero has his dream job—he discovered it while in college searching on idealist.org for an internship. He went to work one summer at Street Sense, a street newspaper in Washington, D.C. Now, he’s the editor.
Street Sense goes out once every two weeks. The news is compiled by Eric and a team of five college interns. The paper’s vendors – people who are experiencing homelessness – contribute to the opinion and art sections.
“We have a large and diverse staff,” Eric says. “No single day is the same.”
He starts his mornings early to work on projects before the interns and vendors arrive. During the day, the office serves as a computer lab for vendors. As people trickle in, Eric works with the reporters as a coach and editor. His days depend on where they are in the two-week production cycle—either uploading everything to the website or laying out the next issue of the paper.
There are 110 street papers in the world. These papers are created to be sold by people experiencing homelessness or who have experienced homelessness in the past. The papers are sold wholesale to the vendors, at $0.50. The vendors then sell them on street corners for a $2 suggested donation, though sometimes readers give more.
To become a vendor, people must go through a one-hour training, offered twice a week. “Our goal is to be a no-barrier job opportunity,” Eric says. Street Sense is not looking for personal information and only requires a name and an emergency contact. After training, vendors are given a few free papers to try selling.
Eric describes his job as a daily inspiration. The vendors build a community and frequently lend each other papers or money to buy papers.
The past two years, he has organized a homeless news blitz in D.C., following the model of a project done in San Francisco, where 88 news outlets coordinated coverage of homelessness on the same day. This year, Eric recruited six newsrooms to participate, doubling the participation from 2016. The event trended in D.C. on Twitter for the day.
“Unless you’ve gone through it, homelessness is not something you think about, but a lot of people are living in a state of emergency,” he says, citing that D.C. has over 7,000 in the area and 500,000 homeless nationwide. “Ultimately we’re making more people aware of the problem to move the conversation forward in the best possible way.”
Eric broke the story on a local policy change regarding how tent-communities are treated. When city crews attempted to trash homeless campers’ belongings and forcibly move people — as opposed to simply helping clean up trash in the area of the camps — his article and social media reporting motivated a Reuters reporter to drive to the scene from New York City and saw The Washington Post and other local outlets calling his newsroom for background information.
One of Eric’s favorite parts of his job is placing a vendor’s story in Street Sense, saying he enjoys the response from readers.
“One half of our mission is to empower people economically, the other half is to break down stereotypes about homelessness,” he says.
If given the ability to totally eliminate one stereotype, he would go after the idea that all homeless people are lazy or mentally ill.
“Yes, plenty of people who end up on the street have mental illness. But we talk to a lot of advocates who say there are programs targeted at those subpopulations. There’s nothing to help those that are able bodied… and just need an opportunity, whether that is job training or a job interview. They’re stuck in a cycle of poverty.”
Every day, Eric sees people who are coming in to sell newspapers on a corner, something that’s considered an outdated practice, to make a living. They are motivated hard workers.
He describes them as a daily inspiration. “It’s a lot of work, but at the same time, it’s hard to turn away from it. It always feels like there’s more to be done, but always that what you’re doing is worthwhile,” he says.