Street newspaper gives opportunity to New Orleans homeless

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The Exchange is a nonproft newspaper founded last year that provides employment opportunities and a voice to homeless and low-income people. Vendor Mark Stevenson holds a copy of the paper Friday outside the New Orleans Mission, where other vendors are trained and papers are delivered.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The Exchange is a nonproft newspaper founded last year that provides employment opportunities and a voice to homeless and low-income people. Vendor Mark Stevenson holds a copy of the paper Friday outside the New Orleans Mission, where other vendors are trained and papers are delivered.

Quarterly gives voice to city’s homeless and poor

Mark Stevenson has had a tough time finding steady work, something that has been demoralizing for the one-time homeless man.

Recently, though, he found work — and the inspiration to forge ahead with his job hunt — by hawking copies of a new newspaper designed to give real-world business experience and a voice to the homeless and low-income community in New Orleans.

The quarterly newspaper, which launched this month, is called The Exchange. The brainchild of Betsy Charron and Todd Thaxton, The Exchange is what’s known as a “street paper,” a publication that focus on social issues and is sold by poor and homeless vendors.

There are more than 120 street papers in the world, Charron said, but The Exchange is the first one in Louisiana. Vendors here, who are permitted by the city, buy copies of the paper for 25 cents at the New Orleans Mission, which serves as a training and distribution center.

Vendors then fan out around town and sell the paper at a suggested cost of $1, keeping all revenue and any tips.

Stevenson, who has been homeless before but now lives in VA housing, said he’s already sold about 100 copies in his first week as a vendor, putting cash in his pocket that he otherwise would not have since he can’t find a job.

He said that the money he earns selling the papers won’t be enough to get a person off of the streets, but the opportunity to sell a product to the public changes a person’s mindset, giving him or her the confidence they need to keep job searches alive.

“It’s not going to get you off the street, but if you change the mindset, you made an accomplishment,” he said. “It changed me.”

In addition to changing the lives of the poor and homeless, Thaxton said another goal of the newspaper is to open a dialogue with that community through the publication’s articles.

“It lets people walk through others’ shoes,” Thaxton said.

The debut issue of The Exchange, which had a press run of 5,000 copies, includes articles from local freelance journalists and news services that serve other street papers.

The Exchange is published by the New Orleans Street Exchange, an umbrella organization that also works to provide vendor training and literacy and writing classes.

While Charron and Thaxton hope to eventually see the paper turn into a monthly publication and grow their vendor ranks, the desire is to see them use the opportunity to move on to full-time jobs and permanent housing.

“Our ultimate goal is to have our vendors not vend anymore,” Charron said.