Street beat

What happens when you mix two Gonzaga University students and Spokane's homeless population? Read all about it in Rising Times

Spokane's newest newspaper, The Rising Times, will hit the streets this Friday. Probably. After all, there are a lot of hurdles when you start a newspaper from scratch, particularly if you have no professional staff and your subject is poverty.

A "street newspaper," the Times will run articles about the homeless and the impoverished — and, to some extent, by them — explains Leah Sottile, a 20-year-old journalism junior at Gonzaga University. She and marketing senior Aaron Sanchez, 21, are the creators and editors of the Times.

"It's to give them a voice in an environment where they're voiceless," says Sottile.

Sanchez and Sottile say they were inspired by Gonzaga's call to social action, and by other street newspapers, like Real Change, which publishes every other week in greater Seattle. The National Coalition for the Homeless lists 38 street newspapers in the United States, and seven in Canada.

Like most street papers, Rising Times will be found in the hands of corner vendors, who will sell the paper for $1 and keep 75 cents. The aim of this unconventional distribution system is to spread the word while generating a little wealth-redistribution from readers to vendors.

The idea of starting a paper in Spokane percolated in Sanchez's mind for more than a year after hearing about it at a social action conference as a sophomore. Sottile had always picked up copies of Street Roots while hanging around downtown Portland, her hometown. So when she heard Sanchez had thought of starting one, she jumped at the chance to energize the idea into reality.

"Social action is always something I've been interested in," she says. "It all kind of fit."

That was in May. This summer, the two students attended a street newspaper conference in San Francisco, and began speaking with Gonzaga administrators and cultivating contacts among Spokane's social service community. Now, Sanchez and Sottile hope Rising Times develops into a legitimate, albeit alternative, news source.

"We want to empower the homeless and their issues, but we want to get it out to everyone," says Sottile, "So people on the South Hill know what's going on down here."

Sanchez and Sottile's view of how the paper will evolve is a bit hazy, but their vision of creating a forum for the impoverished is crystal-clear.

It starts with a street paper, they say, and maybe later will come job skills classes for their street reporters, and then... well, they're going to take it one issue at a time. Starting a newspaper is tough business, especially one focused on the impoverished. That's not the demographic most advertisers want to reach. As of last week, the Times had signed up just two advertisers, says Sanchez.

"It's a tough sell to make," he says.

Gonzaga's mission statement says the school will develop in its students a "thirst for justice." The Jesuit school sees Rising Times "fitting with the mission of the university: services to those most marginalized," says Sima Thorpe.

Thorpe is director of Gonzaga's Center for Community Action and Service-Learning and the two students' work-study boss. The school has given the duo an office. A grant pays for their work-study hours at the paper.

"I know we're taking a risk," says Thorpe, "but sometimes, universities have to take risks."

Sottile and Sanchez found one obstacle much smaller than they'd feared: stoking interest in the homeless community itself.

"Finally your voice will be heard" cries one flyer the students handed out. "Now is your chance."

As word of their project spread on the street and in the shelters, the students say, street people responded, slowly at first, then with an avalanche of phone calls. The Times has half a dozen vendors lined up, and has fielded dozens of calls. Sometimes incoherent, yes; sometimes at 7 am on a Saturday morning, yes; but, usually fired with enthusiasm, say Sanchez and Sottile. Some want to write stories or poetry. Some just want to talk to somebody who's interested in listening.

Of course, not having a direct phone line makes that a challenge sometimes.

The Times' office is a modest basement room in a campus house turned into office space. It's a step up from Sanchez and Sottile's first office, for a short time, in a boiler room. An old DaeWoo computer sits in one corner, blank-screened, when a visiting reporter pokes his head in. Someone recently donated a small printer for the computer, but there's no power cable for it. A window well pours in wan autumn sunlight. Claiming their space like Neolithic cave-painters, Sanchez and Sottile have written brief quotations and peace pictures on the walls.

"If they only knew the pain I am in and been down my road," states one line, attributed to John Alford, their first vendor. "Been in my shoes a mile or two. And the fact that I feel so empty and lost."

Below that, a felt-marker arrow traces a line to another quote: "This is why we are making this paper."

Spokane social service workers say they're watching the Rising Times effort with hope. "We're kind of excited about it," says June Shapiro, director of the city's human services department.

Some 1,600 people are homeless in Spokane at any one time, Shapiro estimates. Since most homeless people migrate to the city's core, only a few more wander the streets of Spokane County. And in nearby Kootenai County, Idaho, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 or 300 homeless people at any time.

Many media organizations approach things "often from the point of view of people with money," says Mary Rathert, director of the Women's Drop-In Center on South Howard Street. A street paper "is a great way to make the voices of the homeless and low-income be heard."

While groups like the Spokane Homeless Coalition are cheering the Times, probably the last thing most downtown merchants want to see are the homeless hawking papers on street corners. Selling papers on the corner is a legitimate enterprise, not panhandling, Sanchez contends: "People aren't just giving a dollar. They're going to give this dollar because they want to read this news."

Mark Curtis, director of operations for the Downtown Spokane Partnership, concedes he has some concerns, but also hails the spirit of the Times.

"We would like to see people who would like to get a job, get a job, and I applaud them," says Curtis, adding, "It's very forward-thinking for Spokane."

The partnership administers the city's business improvement district in 80 square blocks of downtown. Among its other activities, the association sends out half a dozen private security guards to confront aggressive panhandlers and assist shoppers. Says Curtis, "Our goal here is to have an inviting and clean and friendly and safe downtown."

The partnership has taken no position on whether shoppers should buy papers from homeless vendors.

Sanchez says the paper will conduct background checks on vendors, train them and purchase their $60 city business permits.

Success for the Times won't be selling 100 copies, necessarily, or 1,000, say Sanchez and Sottile. Rather, it will come, if it comes, one dollar at a time, with the interaction of the homeless and the public that often shuns them.

"This paper is something Spokane should respect," says Sottile. "It's going to take a while to build up this respect."

Rising Times has an office and one computer, but little else.

The paper welcomes small donations of money and equipment. Among their specific needs are a copy of the layout software Quark Xpress for an IBM-compatible, and a printing company willing to donate or trade in kind. Offers of assistance, reporting or vending may be made by telephone to Sima Thorpe at (509) 323-6856.

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