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The Good News
By Jan D. Thomas

How a monthly literary publication is helping homeless people earn pocket change—and a shot at lifting themselves into the mainstream

Making a new start: Dwayne Alado. Photo by Teri Currie.

All Dwayne Alado needed was for someone to see him for who he really was. He wanted someone to realize that the circumstances he was in were not a reflection of his personality or his work ethic. At 33 years old, Alado found himself without a job or a home, and depressed over a recent divorce and the subsequent separation from his three children. He had come to Albany after leaving his former home in Pittsfield, Mass., and he was staying at the Capital City Rescue Mission Shelter on South Pearl Street. But then an opportunity came along, and he took it.

Someone from the Homeless and Travelers Aid Society in Albany approached Alado about selling a monthly literary newspaper called BIGnews as a way to earn a little money so that he could go out and look for employment. He took advantage of this break and started selling the paper on the corner of Lark and State streets.

For a month, Alado hit the pavement, selling papers to passersby. He used the money earned to buy food when he wasn’t able to make it back to the mission in time for a meal. Sometimes he bought his own cigarettes so he didn’t have to bum them from someone else.

He got to know quite a few people on Lark Street, including Tom Despart, owner of the swanky new restaurant McGuire’s. Soon after, he was offered a job there as a dishwasher.

“[Selling BIGnews] was giving me money to be able to go out on the

bus, to fill out those applications and try to get a job,” says Alado. “I used it to try to get myself in a better position. This is how I got my job today at McGuire’s.

“I was only working a couple hours a week at first,” Alado says with a smile, “and then I guess they liked the way that I worked, because I was always on time and determined, and now I work there full-time. I guess [BIGnews] gave people a chance to see who I was and not judge me because I was selling a homeless-type newspaper.”

‘Helping the homeless help themselves” is the motto of BIGnews, a newspaper designed to create transitional income opportunities for homeless and formerly homeless persons until a greater level of self-sufficiency can be attained. Ira Mandelker, executive director of HATAS and cofounder of BIGnews, explains that homeless people can become registered vendors and sell the newspaper to earn extra cash while seeking other forms of employment or taking part in rehabilitation programs. The first 10 issues—sold on the street for $1 each—are given to vendors for free to help get them started earning some money. On their second visit, vendors must purchase five issues for 30 cents apiece, but they also are given 15 for free. On the third visit, they can buy 10 copies at 30 cents and they are given an additional 20 free papers. On each subsequent visit, they can purchase 10 papers and they’ll be given another 10.

The content of BIGnews consists of art, fiction and poetry. All of the work published in the paper is donated by artists and authors from around the world seeking notoriety. Just this year at the North American Street Newspaper Association convention in Boston, the paper won awards for Best Editorial, Opinion or Essay, Best Art (for Street Photos), and Best Poetry.

The paper’s revenue comes from a combination of advertising, grants and foundational support. Mainchance, the New York City-based nonprofit that publishes BIGnews, actively seeks sponsorships and subscriptions, in addition to new advertisers, to sustain the publication. Any revenue that the publication generates goes to support HATAS programs.

Mandelker says that one of the best features of BIGnews is the confidence and positive self-esteem it helps to build in its vendors. Selling the paper helps the vendors shed the negative stereotypes that people often associate with homelessness. At the same time, it provides the homeless with a chance to be proactive about earning money when they might not have been given that opportunity in the job market.

“It made me feel good [when someone bought a newspaper], because when most people think of the homeless, they think of someone out there panhandling and begging, and it wasn’t like that,” states Alado.I was really making an honest living, making an honest dollar. And it gave me incentive to pitch the papers more, because this was basically where my bread and butter was coming from. . . . It made me feel better about myself and kind of put me back in the mood where I knew I can do this. Because I think I lost that for a while. It put me back to being me.”

Mandelker and Dennis Mosley, both of whom now live in Albany, were part of BIGnews’ humble beginnings in New York City. Mosley, who at the time worked as the director of special projects and housing at Grand Central Neighborhood Social Service Corporation, says that the idea for BIGnews was gleaned from another publication, called Upward, that was developed at a drop-in center.

“It started out as tips from homeless people helping other homeless people cope with homelessness,” says Mosley of Upward. “It was distributed free through all the shelter systems at first, to homeless sites, from Manhattan to Queens to Brooklyn. We got different writers and we paid them money for each article. They were all homeless at the time and living in the shelter at night. And the articles that we liked, we’d put together, and the executive director would edit it out and put that together. It was a one-page thing and grew to be five, 10 pages.”

From Upward sprang BIGnews, which was modeled after a London-based publication called Big Issue, which is still distributed by the homeless throughout Europe and has even seeped overseas to parts of the United States. Originally intended as a New York chapter of Big Issue, BIGnews developed into a nonprofit publication geared toward helping the homeless.

At the time, Mandelker was the associate director of Grand Central Neighborhood Social Service Corporation, which runs Mainchance and provides social services for the homeless. When Mandelker left New York City to come to Albany to be the executive director of HATAS in 1999, he wanted to bring BIGnews to the Capital Region. Finally, last month, BIGnews hit the streets locally. Currently, 25,000 copies of BIGnews are being distributed every month in New York City, and in its first full month in Albany, more than 2,000 were circulated. Right now there are 33 registered vendors in the Capital Region, but most don’t sell on a consistent basis.

“This should not be looked at as a pity purchase,” explains Mandelker. “This is a quirky, eccentric, fun magazine to read. . . . Will it be embraced by Albany? Who knows? I know it’s being embraced by homeless people, and that’s a start. If people like what they read, they will buy. And if they don’t like what they read, they won’t. I think there’s a market for this kind of edgy art and fiction in Albany.”

Besides being a source of income for the homeless, Mendelker explains that the newspaper fosters an entrepreneurial spirit among those who sell it.

Helping the homeless help themselves: Dennis Mosley. Photo by Teri Currie.

“Just like any other businessperson, they have to pay for their supplies,” says Mendelker. “They have to manage their inventory. They have to schedule their time. They have to pick good places to market their paper. They have to work on their people skills, because you want to be able to smile and be charming to people you’re selling to. You want people to want to buy from you. They’re working on their social networking skills, as well. It’s also a great engagement tool for employment and social-service programs here, because when someone gets involved in this project, they come back regularly.”

The money made from the sale of the papers is the vendors’ money to spend.

“A vendor came to me before and said, ‘Ira, a guy walked up to me and was interested in buying a newspaper and asked me what happens to this money,’” Mendelker chuckles. “It’s pretty funny, because if you went into the convenience store across the street and wanted to buy a newspaper, can you imagine asking the person that sold you the newspaper what happens to that money?”

Malik Cato, 38, has been a BIGnews vendor in both New York City and Albany. He says that a very important part of selling the paper is appearance. Cato claims that when people buy a paper, it’s almost as if they are buying a piece of the salesperson. In order for people to take him seriously, he invests some of his profits into clothing, boots and grooming.

“You see, the whole thing is that the shelters, they give you stuff, like clothes and such, but you can’t get stuff that fits you,” says Cato. “You got a certain body, so I gotta invest some of that money toward my looks. I always feel, particularly with BIGnews, it’s how you approach people. Your appearance. That’s everything. ’Cause sometimes people look down on people.”

Both Cato and Alado developed a sales pitch that emphasizes their personalities, using a polite and personable approach when selling papers. Cato claims to have sold thousands of papers on the streets of New York, and Alado used to sell 35 papers a day, six days a week in Albany. Now that Alado has a full-time job, he does not sell the paper anymore, but Cato is still actively involved with BIGnews.

“People walk around like this, like everything is all right,” explains Cato. “You never know who they are or where people are coming from, but there’s a hurt that you just don’t see. Some people know how to cope with it, some can’t. But if you can get people to participate in things like that within the shelter system, it’s not just selling the paper, but developing skills and not just stuffed up in a homeless shelter. That’s a whole ’nother world. [With BIGnews], people feel a part of it. They feel a part of something.”

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