I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
he said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
she cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”
— “Bird on a Wire,” Leonard Cohen
John “Indio” Washington, 67, is editor-in-chief of Street News (SN), a longtime New York City publication that focuses on issues of homelessness . . . primarily written and sold by homeless New Yorkers. This wasn’t always the case. In the late 1980s, Indio was homeless. “In December 1989,” he recalls, “I was riding on the #3 train ‘n I saw this Black sister selling SN. I asked her if I could help sell the paper ‘n she could hit me with whatever she wanted to give me for helping her. She instead took me downtown to SN headquarters ‘n they gave me 5 or 10 free papers to sell. I never looked back.”
Those were the days when homelessness was the cause de jour in the Big Apple and SN’s circulation was close to 100,000. Then, says Indio, “The Mayor or President of Transit or both directed the Transit Police to arrest anyone selling our paper on the subways. The Port Authority, Grand Central Terminal, Staten Island Ferry ‘n other agencies jumped on the bandwagon. We lost nearly 80% of readership.”
In April 1996, Indio took the reins at the troubled newspaper. “I became the first Native American Indian Editor in Chief of SN,” he says. “Sales went up to 20,000 per issue thanks to our staff of reporters, vendors ‘n, of course, our readers! We are still the only for-profit homeless paper in the United States.”
On September 11, 1997, in Seattle, Washington, SN received an award from The North American Street Newspaper Association for “inspiring the modern street newspaper movement. More than eight years later, Indio and SN continue their mission. “We still have more pages than any other active homeless newspaper on this planet!” Indio declares. Maintaining the tradition of 16-plus years, SN still gives out 25 free papers to all new vendors to get them started.
I have been writing for Street News for well over a decade and am fortunate to call Indio a friend. I asked him a few questions via e-mail:
MZ: How long were you homeless?
Indio: Two years.
MZ: What would you say is the biggest myth about homeless people?
Indio: That they don’t want to work!
|Click on the chart for a larger view.
SOURCE: Coalition for the Homeless, “State of the Homeless 2006,” 24 January 2006
Indio: Hard to tell if it’s true or not because reports can be padded to go in the direction told to take it. I do not respect “reports” ‘n other negative stuff. You have to be on the streets to know the real deal! They think about getting more funds ‘n generally go by their work load. Same thing goes for the places that feed us ‘n give out food ‘n so on. Plus there’s a lot of reports ‘n books that say it’s hard to get an accurate account of homeless in the streets. I think they call it “unexpected difficulties.”
MZ: What measures do you think must be taken in the short term to deal with homelessness?
Indio: There is no short-term solution unless the definition has changed. We could do with more media about the beating ‘n killing of homeless to get people to starting caring, but that need to be done everyday as much as possible. There is no short-term answer to homelessness. Jesus said, “The poor will always be with us.” So many people use this as a cop-out to not give a damn.
MZ: What’s the state of Street News in 2006?
Indio: We still are the voice of the voiceless, the heart, soul ‘n spirit of the streets that tells the Real Deal like ’tis! Still in the struggle!
Mickey Z. is the author of several books, most recently 50 American Revolutions You’re Not Supposed to Know: Reclaiming American Patriotism (Disinformation Books). He can be found on the Web at