A real Chicagoan knows the familiar call of "Streetwise, here!" More than 12,000 vendors have sold the so-called "street paper" for the Uptown-headquartered nonprofit organization since it was founded 25 years ago. Its mission is to help the city's homeless earn a living with dignity.
By providing job training and a tangible product to sell, Streetwise CEO Julie Youngquist says the publication-slash-workforce development agency can help take people off the street and provide a stepping stone for them to re-engage in the community. "We want to provide them a hand up, not a handout," Youngquist says.
The organization supports 400 vendors a year, Youngquist says. It also has provided meals, community space, and social services to help people in poverty. As Streetwise's 25th anniversary year winds down, we spoke with Youngquist about the group's history and future plans.
How did Streetwise come about?
Our founder Judd Lofchie was visiting New York City and saw a CNN story about a street paper in New York. He thought it would be great to bring the idea to Chicago as a way to create an immediate income and help put homeless people back to work. After returning to the city, he organized People for Ending Hunger; they spent a year trying to figure out how to bring this model to Chicago. On August 24, 1992, we published our first paper with the help of some Chicago Tribune reporters. Originally, the homeless population was given newspapers and shown how to sell it. Since then, he has had our vendors buy the magazines for 90 cents and sell them for $2.
How do vendors decide where to sell Streetwise?
We’ve worked with university students who have done foot traffic and customer service studies to identify locations where vendors will be successful. When a new vendor comes in, we try to find a good spot near them to cut down on time spent on public transportation. We’ve been around for so long, and we have established spots where people expect a Streetwise vendor. There's a better chance they'll succeed because people understand what we are trying to do. So, we encourage new vendors to use these spots.
What's something people don't know about Streetwise?
The one thing that makes this a unique opportunity is that our vendors have to buy the magazine, which means they have to have the confidence to believe in themselves, and they have to invest in their own journey. Not only do they need to cultivate customer service skills and learn how to engage people on the street, but they also need to manage their inventory and their money. They are launching these micro street businesses, which is much more difficult to do than sit on the ground and ask for money.
These vendors work so hard to make a change in their life. They are up early. They're out late. They're like the post office—rain, shine, or cold weather—they are on the streets selling the magazine. It's a very supportive community, they are trying to help each other stay out there, stick with it, and make their lives better.
How has Streetwise changed since it started 25 years ago?
We've certainly evolved making sure that we are giving our vendors the tools they need to be successful. Over time, we’ve added a cafe where we provide a hot meal onsite every day. For many of our vendors, this is their primary meal; then they can save resources for housing and other needs. We also have a social worker and some social work interns who help get vital records or housing referrals. We’ve created a communal space where our vendors can get respite from the cold or heat, use computers and phones, and get their mail.
Were these additional services envisioned when Streetwise became an organization?
It organically evolved in this way. The original intent was to give homeless people a way to earn an immediate income with dignity. It was all about this transactional relationship with the public where someone would give the vendor money, and the vendor would have something of value in return. In working with this population, we are constantly looking for ways to empower our vendors and provide the resources they need to go to the next level.
What’s in store for the future of Streetwise?
Looking forward, I would love to see hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of vendors. We will continue to look at ways to help more people go from homeless and begging, if that's what they were doing, to selling the magazine and being housed and stable—whether that means giving them some sales training or other entrepreneurial opportunities.