In Our Backyard Interview: “Homelessness is Like Being Slowly Disassembled”

Alyssa Peterson: Can you explain Street Sense’s mission?

Brian Carome: We are a street newspaper, which is a model that exists in a lot of different places. Street newspapers are print newspapers that report on homelessness and poverty in the communities that they serve. They employ men and women, who themselves are homeless, to sell the paper and earn income from doing that. In our case, about half the content of the paper is also written by men and women who either are currently [homeless] or have experienced homelessness. We’ve been around since the fall of 2003.

We call ourselves a no-barrier employment opportunity. We offer orientations twice a week—every Tuesday and Thursday—throughout the year. You don’t need an appointment; you don’t need a referral; you don’t have to fill out any application; and you don’t even need to know the name of someone you’re coming to see. You don’t have to have any capital to buy any first set of newspapers. We provide you the first set of papers free.

Alyssa: What is the role of Street Sense in breaking down the stereotypes that people would think usually about homeless people?

Brian Carome: When we’re at our best, we help folks see the common ground between their lives and the lives of folks who are homeless. It takes away that sort of other, or sense of alien about folks who are homeless. And we learn that they are people just like us. They may have had different opportunities and different experiences. But they came into the world with the same hopes and dreams as everyone else.

We help folks see the common ground between their lives and the lives of folks who are homeless.

People experience Street Sense in a number of ways. It’s through the newspaper and now through the playwriting workshop. But it’s also through the one-on-one conversation that individuals have with their vendor as they’re purchasing the paper. We think those are very important conversations. And we think that they are conversations that wouldn’t happen were it not for our being here. The relationship goes both ways. It’s important for our vendors to also get to know the readers and their customers. It’s helpful for both people to find that common ground.

Alyssa: Vendors say that Street Sense is really empowering. How does Street Sense create this dynamic?

Brian Carome: I think employment really puts the finger on what we try to do. I spent a lot of my career working in shelters and housing programs. The dynamic between our vendors is so different than in a normal client-provider situation. Our vendors feel a genuine sense of ownership in the organization. They are our entire distribution network and they author half of the content of the publications. They participate in our other programs as well and demonstrate ownership.

There’s a sense of comradery. Most of the vendors who walk through the door seeking employment with us at this point are word of mouth referrals. They have been brought here by an existing vendor, folks who understand what the organization can offer to someone. They want to pass that along to someone else.

We believe in the transformational experience that our vendors have when they’re here. Again, it’s that ability to apply their talents; to use their personality to make money that really has a profound change on people and impact on people’s lives.

Video Credit: Saba Aregai (Portfolio)

Alyssa: What kind of programs are run to help foster this sense of community among the vendors and are you looking to expand this programming?

Brian Carome: We have a weekly writer’s group. That’s a tight-knit group of folks who come together every week and argue with each other and brainstorm with each other. [They] debate each other about their different perspectives on issues in the world. We also have an illustration workshop for folks who want to do illustrations for the paper. There’s also a videography workshop now and a playwriting workshop where we have a partnership with two playwrights at George Washington University Department of Theatre and Dance. Our vendors both write original works and also perform them together as a small troupe.

We’re looking for ways of capturing new audiences; ways of broadening the impact of this story of homelessness and how it’s afflicting the community. The other thing we hope for in the future is to expand our geographical footprint. We’d like to open up bureaus in some of the surrounding suburbs and begin providing that vendor, self-employment opportunity to those communities as well. And also to do more public education on the issue of homelessness as it affects Arlington or Montgomery County.

Alyssa: Why do you think people who are formerly homeless continue to be involved in the paper?

Brian Carome: One is the sense of community.  In my experience working in shelters, one of the things that characterizes being homeless is a sense of aloneness and separateness. [Street Sense] helps put the blocks together to reconnect yourself to the community. And I think especially, again, for folks who are writing for the newspaper… it’s nice to see your name in print, and it’s nice to talk to people who appreciate what you’re writing.

The folks who are selling our papers are entrepreneurs; they are self-employed men and women. We give them that chance to be their own boss. I think that continues to be an attraction for folks.

Alyssa: Why is it so important that low-income people are at the forefront of the anti-poverty movement and that their voices are heard?

Brian Carome: They are not heard elsewhere. We wouldn’t exist if the Washington Post or the Washington Times was writing about homelessness every single day. So, we really feel like we fill a gap.  We want the content of the paper to have an impact on those who read it and experience it. [In the paper], you can get a first person account of what homelessness is like; how it affects someone. We think that goes a long way to bringing this community to the point that we find homelessness unacceptable.

Alyssa: Advocates anticipated that there was going to be an increase in homelessness this winter. Do you think the city is equipped to handle this?

Brian Carome: Certainly, the family shelter system is woefully inadequate. I guess most importantly though, is that there are cities across the country that are understanding that it’s less expensive to house people than it is to respond to people once they’re homeless. And we’re not doing enough in this city to embrace that approach. There are way too many folks that live outside. There are way too many families entering the shelter system.

Alyssa: How could the city be doing more?

Brian Carome: D.C. is [among] the top two or three most expensive housing communities in the country. It certainly speaks to why we have such a homelessness problem. We are wasting [money] any time we are sheltering or allowing folks to live in the street rather than giving them a place to live, even if we have to pay 100% of the rent.

And, the longer you’re homeless, the longer you’re going to be homeless. The solution is really quite simple. It’s housing people. Whether that’s providing a small rental subsidy or a complete subsidy, it’s less expensive than the millions and millions of dollars we’re spending on the shelter system—especially for families. It’s just way too wasteful. And what it does to folks—especially to kids—is very devastating and long lasting. It would behoove the city to rethink the way we approach it—especially for family homelessness.



The President and the American Indian and Alaska Native Youth Movement

Earlier in my career, I worked in the tribal criminal justice system on reservations in the Southwest.  Tribal courts were often ground zero for seeing the day-to-day challenges facing American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) youth as well as the consequences of failed policies and underinvestment in their communities.

I remember, for example, young people who bootlegged alcohol from local towns off the rez—at a profit for non-Native business owners—and then were caught selling it to friends from school who struggled with substance abuse.  Good-hearted tribal court judges tried to help them understand the consequences of repeated offenses, only to find that many of these young Native people simply felt they had no real opportunities ahead of them, no real future. This sense of hopelessness among low-income tribal communities across the country—and the actions that many young people take as a result—are the symptoms of a much deeper problem, not the cause of it.

The sense of hopelessness among low-income tribal communities are the symptoms of a much deeper problem, not the cause of it.

Many in our country feel as if nothing can be done about deep and persistent poverty and accompanying challenges such as substance abuse, especially in low-income places like tribal communities, and particularly on reservations.  But AIAN youth who are organizing for change across the country are bringing something unique to the table—a belief that none of these challenges are intractable, and an expectation of older generations to support their efforts to create opportunity.  Young people also believe that their tribal culture should play a powerful role in any reform efforts and in their future.

That is why President Obama’s new commitment matters—a lot.  Last month, he announced a new agenda focusing on Native youth at the annual White House Tribal Nations conference.  The agenda includes listening tours by cabinet secretaries in Indian Country; reorganizing and strengthening some education programs serving AIAN youth; a new national leadership network called “Generation Indigenous”, in partnership with the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute; and the first White House tribal youth conference in 2015.

In the President’s address to hundreds of tribal leaders at the conference, he highlighted his recent trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe where he met with a group of tribal youth:

“And the truth is those young people were representative of young people in every tribe, in every reservation in America. And too many face the same struggles that those Lakota teenagers face. They’re not sure that this country has a place for them. Every single one of them deserves better than they’re getting right now. They are our children, and they deserve the chance to achieve their dreams. So when Michelle and I got back to the White House after our visit to Standing Rock, I told my staff… I brought whoever [in my cabinet was] involved in youth and education and opportunity and job training, and I said, you will find new avenues of opportunity for our Native youth. You will make sure that this happens on my watch. And as I spoke, they knew I was serious because it’s not very often where I tear up in the Oval Office. I deal with a lot of bad stuff in this job. It is not very often where I get choked up….”

For those of us who work with AIAN youth it comes as little surprise that the President would “get choked up.”  These young people struggle with some of the most severe challenges in the country: 37 percent of AIAN children under 18 live in poverty, significantly higher than the national child poverty rate of 22 percent (according to the American Community Survey).  The AIAN graduation rate is the lowest of any racial and ethnic group at 68 percent.  For students served by the Bureau of Indian Education, the graduation rate is only 53 percent, compared to the national graduation rate of 80 percent.  One recent study showed 18.3 percent of AIAN 8th graders reported binge drinking, compared to 7.1 percent nationally. Perhaps most stunning, suicide is the second leading cause of death for AIAN youth between ages 15 and 24—they commit suicide at 2.5 times the national rate.

It’s far past time that we offer real and significant support to AIAN youth, and the President’s initiative is a good start. It puts the voices and goals of AIAN youth front and center, building off of an agenda that has been growing among youth in tribal communities across the country for years.  If done well, this initiative will lift up the great work already being undertaken by AIAN youth and provide some of the tools they need to achieve real change in their communities.

Each year, the Center for Native American Youth—a partner on the new Generation Indigenous network—publishes the Voices of Native Youth report.  Its staff members travel to tribal communities across the country to conduct roundtables with AIAN youth and identify challenges, priorities and promising solutions to address the many obstacles that they face.  In the most recent report, AIAN youth identified significant and much needed changes in education, health and wellness, and bullying and school discipline, among other areas. They also made it clear that preserving and strengthening their culture and language must be at the center of any agenda.

The President took a significant step towards empowering the AIAN youth movement to make these and other reforms in their communities.  Elizabeth Burns—a Center for Native American Youth “2014 Champion for Change” and a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma— is an example of why this kind of leadership is important for a movement that has been so marginalized.  She said: “I have been told that my dream of helping other Native youth is ridiculous and that I should give up. I realized that negative comments won’t hold me back. I will make my dream a reality.”

It’s time for the rest of us to stand behind the President and youth like Elizabeth. To learn more about the Champions for Change and AIAN youth agenda visit the Center for Native American Youth.



When They Get Out

In July 2014, the United States Sentencing Commission approved long overdue revisions to sentencing guidelines for drug trafficking offenses. This action is the result of widespread agreement that the disproportionate sentences for certain drug-related crimes are a civil rights violation and an unjust, ineffective, and costly set of policies.

Considering that around 50% of inmates in federal prison are incarcerated for drug charges, the new guidelines promise to lead to a significant reduction in mass incarceration.  In fact, beginning in November 2015, the shorter sentences can also be applied retroactively to over 40,000 eligible prisoners. These bipartisan reforms represent a beacon of hope for many inmates and their families.

However, progress in sentencing must be matched with equal attention to what will happen to former prisoners after they are released.  Reentry is never as simple as opening the gates and letting someone out.  Even short periods of incarceration cause major life disruptions, including the loss of jobs and housing.   These barriers, plus expensive court fees, make rebuilding a life immensely difficult and complicated.  Because of their time and jail and overcrowded living conditions, reentering citizens often suffer severe mental and physical effects such as PTSD and a much higher rate of communicable diseases.  Given the many serious obstacles that come with involvement in the criminal justice system, few people are able to navigate reentry without significant support.

Without effective reentry policies, the myth that criminals can never change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yet despite the clear need for assistance, former offenders are blocked from many federal and local aid programs that are designed to help people secure basic necessities. Probation officers in some jurisdictions even give out tents to their clients because they know that it will be difficult to find a place to live. Even social services that are available are often difficult to access, since many former offenders lack things like a valid driver’s license, car, and a working telephone.

One widely acknowledged key factor in successful reentry is employment, which is extremely difficult for ex-offenders to obtain.   Even individuals with solid work histories and marketable skills are rejected repeatedly, often on the basis of their status as a reentering citizen, although their charge does not impact their ability to do their job.  When they finally do find an employer willing to hire them, the job is often low-paying and unsustainable.

As a direct service worker who provides employment services to reentering citizens, I worked with a middle-aged woman who had a single shoplifting charge but a decade of solid work experience in an office.  She struggled for two years to find work and finally settled for a low-paying janitorial job.  An employment specialist at another agency told her not to bother looking for a better job until her charge was at least five years old.  People who have served longer sentences face the additional barrier of long gaps in their resumes; lack of familiarity with modern technology; and disconnection from support systems.

At best, many individuals in this situation become dependent on nonprofit aid and social services.  At worst, they re-offend and are once again involved in the criminal justice system.  This vicious cycle serves no one.

In order to ensure that the new sentencing guidelines will bring the most benefit, we must improve the existing reentry process.  Here are five ways to do that:

  1. Shore up existing, successful reentry programs and share their models.  Ensure that nonprofit agencies and government programs can handle increased caseloads and provide the material support people need as they transition back into the community;
  2. Update laws to remove barriers that keep ex-offenders with drug charges from receiving benefits like SNAP, TANF, or housing assistance.
  3. Eliminate penalties that serve no public safety purpose.  For example, license suspension is a common penalty applied to force people to pay court fees and fines.  When you take away someone’s ability to drive, you greatly decrease their ability to work and pay what they owe. People can even be re-incarcerated for failure to pay, destroying whatever progress they have made, and trapping them in cycles of incarceration.
  4. Update employment laws related to the hiring of ex-offenders.  Many jurisdictions have begun this process with ban-the-box legislation.  But these laws will do little if they merely postpone a negative answer.  There need to be laws with real consequences for discrimination against former offenders or substantial incentives for companies that have positive second chance hiring policies.

Real rehabilitation and successful reentry are possible.  The new sentencing guidelines are a great start but they need to be matched with an equally strong push for smart, effective reentry policies.  Without such measures, the myth that criminals can never change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


First Person

Tour Guide to Homelessness

Editor’s Note: This piece is an edited essay based on a compilation of real life interviews between the author and her social worker.

Oh, hi. I’m Lydia. I’ll be your tour guide to HOMELESSNESS today. If you could, please just take your shoes off at the door… socks, too… much appreciated. Oh, and you can leave your dignity there, too – you won’t be needing that. Oh, dear, you’re not really dressed for the occasion… But, that’s ok. I’ll help you. Don’t worry… Just take my hand… here, let’s go.

Ok, first—if you could fill out this form. Yeah—that one too… then, uhm… turn it over and put your name here… sign here… there, yeah—there too. Initial this…and sign that, good.

Now, flip the page—what did you say your name was? Actually, never mind. Let’s speed this up, it’s almost lunch… Okay, read this, sign that… Initial here, here and here…. Now, date it…. No, you don’t need a copy, it’s just for my files.

You have kids? You get child support? Do you know who their dads are? Do you know where their dads are? Hmm…You’re definitely gonna need to come up with some additional income before we can help you…. I don’t know how much…. You might have to come back tomorrow to complete the interview. Wait. Could you just wait here for a minute?

[20 minutes later]

Ok, just a few more questions… What did you say happened with your family? Really? When was that? Could you call them for help? Oh, and what did they say? Oh, huh…. Well, what about friends? Neighbors? Co-workers? Really… Well, do you have a contact number for them? Maybe if I called them, and told them you were about to be homeless, they might want to help you more? Well, uhmmm… I mean, we could give it a try…

So, otherwise—what’s your plan? Hmm…that hardly seems workable… Well, let me ask you this—what did you do with your tax refund? Don’t remember? We really need that information for our files… Car payment, okay, clothes… A mini vacation?!? Wow, maybe we should sign you up for budget counseling… Right. Okay, you know what else we need? Do you have your driver’s license, birth certificate, social security card, leases, utility bills, most recent bank statement…? Well, could you at least get your tax information for us? It’s just procedure, really, for our files… So, when do you think you could bring this information in? The sooner, the better…. Well, we can’t help you without it…. Sorry…. Yeah, I wish we could, but without a workable plan…. It’ll be hard to do…

Uh huh… I don’t know the answer to that, let me check on it later…. No, that’s not important. Just bring us the information we need, and maybe we can work something out from there… Meanwhile, why don’t you call your mom and dad…Oh, sorry to hear that—what about your dad? No? But maybe if you tell him your situation, and then… No, well… Uhh, I don’t know…. I don’t think so. Let me go check on that……

[25 minutes later]

Oh, hi—I almost forgot you were in here… Now, we can’t really do anything for you until you’ve exhausted all of your resources. Let me ask you this—when was the last time you smoked? drank? How often? I see, okay…. uhm, so… is this a problem for you? I mean…do you need counseling? Maybe I could give you a referral to the drug treatment program…. Right, okay… Oh, I almost forgot—could you read this and sign here? There, too. Uh-huh… That’s ok—I understand, it’s a lot to do—but we need this information for our files.

This? Oh, just a consent to talk to your counselor about the results of the drug tests you’re going to take this Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday… Have to be at work? Well, we aren’t allowed to place you until you complete this mandatory drug testing and counseling… Well, that depends. If you come up positive, we would need to have another meeting to discuss it… Yes, you have to go to every single one…. Yes, someone will be in the room with you while you pee… It’s just a process, don’t worry, everyone does it… Ok, so… did you have any other questions?

Sorry, I don’t know anything about that…. No, we won’t have an answer for at least another week or so…. Well, I don’t know, the shelters are full, and there’re no hotel or motel rooms available, so I guess you’ll just have to… make do—are you sure you don’t have anyone you can call? That’s really too bad…. Sorry we couldn’t do more for you…. Maybe if you come back next month, we might have an opening then.



The Best Poverty Journalism in 2014: My Picks

In 2015, will recognize strong media coverage of poverty on an ongoing basis.  To get that effort started, here’s a look back at some of the best poverty journalism in 2014. These 20 stories and op-eds drew attention to critical but underreported issues, rebutted persistent myths, shed light on barriers to economic security and mobility, lifted up policy solutions, provided insightful commentary on media coverage of poverty, or even served as a catalyst for change. (Stories are listed in no particular order.)

Next up: TalkPoverty wants to hear from you!

Nominate your 2014 favorites in print, web, radio, and TV poverty journalism in the comment field below, or email We will include readers’ picks in an upcoming blog and on-air as part of new TalkPoverty Radio miniseries, launching January 17 on SiriusXM’s new channel, SiriusXM Insight.

Driven into debt

by Michael Corkery and Jessica Silver-Greenberg

New York Times Dealbook

This five-part investigative series explores the rise in predatory subprime auto loans and how they can trap low-income individuals in cycles of debt. (Don’t miss the accompanying videos.)

Working anything but 9 to 5

by Jodi Kantor

New York Times

This in-depth article follows Jannette Navarro—a Starbucks barista and mother struggling to make ends meet—highlighting the effects of an unpredictable job schedule, particularly on parents. Soon after this story ran, Starbucks announced it would reform its scheduling policy.

Growth has been good for years. So why hasn’t poverty declined?

by Neil Irwin

New York Times Upshot

This important piece highlights how economic growth no longer translates into less poverty and busts two prevalent myths—that hard work is all it takes to escape poverty, and that public assistance provides “perverse incentives” against working.

What happens when your pregnant sister-in-law is paralyzed in a car accident and has no insurance

by Harold Pollack

Washington Post Wonkblog

I can’t get enough of Harold Pollack’s Wonkblog interviews. This one features an interview with Andrea Campbell, whose sister-in law was paralyzed in a car accident a few years ago, throwing the whole family into crisis. In particular, this piece does a great job of illustrating how harmful and counterproductive asset limits can be.

Poverty more common than most Americans realize

by Al Lubrano

Philadelphia Inquirer

A little known fact about poverty in America is that “the poor” are not some static group of people living in poverty year after year. This story busts that myth and highlights how four out of five Americans will experience at least a year of poverty or near poverty, or receive jobless benefits or public assistance at some point during their working years.

Fighting to forget: Long after arrests, records live on

by Gary Fields and Josh Emshwiller

Wall Street Journal

Gary Fields’ continued coverage throughout 2014 of how criminal records—including arrests that never led to conviction—serve as a barrier to employment, has been some of the best work done on this issue to date.

When poverty makes you sick, a lawyer can be the cure

by Tina Rosenberg

New York Times Opinionator

This piece highlights how low-income individuals are more likely to experience poor health—often due to adverse environmental factors—and explores medical-legal partnerships, a promising model of legal services delivery that puts legal aid lawyers on site at hospitals and medical clinics to help low-income people get free legal help to prevent eviction, utility shut-off, access needed public aid, and more.

Food insecurity in the U.S. 

Now with Alex Wagner


Alex Wagner traveled to Owsley, Kentucky—one of the poorest counties in the U.S.—to examine hunger in America and the role of SNAP in alleviating it. She then took viewers’ questions and used the opportunity to dispel myths and stereotypes about SNAP and the people who count on the program to make ends meet.

Does the media care about labor anymore?

by Timothy Noah


This story tracks the decline in media coverage of labor issues, and makes the point that with income inequality at record highs and wages for middle-class and low-income workers continuing to stagnate, the labor beat is “more important than ever.”

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Predatory Lending


The inimitable John Oliver gives payday lending the treatment it deserves in a monologue that’s equal parts hilarious and horrific. (Stick around for a special guest appearance by Sarah Silverman at the end.)

Guilty and charged

by Joe Shapiro

National Public Radio

This investigative series follows the rise of court fines and fees that can be in the hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars, and which hurt low-income people the most.

Welcome to Shawnee, Oklahoma, the worst city in America to be homeless

by Scott Keyes


Keyes’ continued coverage of homelessness was unparalleled while he was at ThinkProgress. This piece explores the tribal history underpinning much of homelessness in Shawnee (the homeless population there skews heavily Native American), the city’s efforts to fight homelessness—and the wealthy Vice Mayor’s opposition to them.

Living wages, rarity for U.S. fast food workers, served up in Denmark

by Liz Alderman and Steven Greenhouse

New York Times

Amid fast food strikes in the U.S. calling for $15 an hour and a union, this article takes a look at pay and benefits for fast-food workers in Denmark—which as the reporters note, “their American counterparts could only dream of.”

For Louisiana moms, Paul Ryan’s poverty plan could make a bad situation worse

By Neil DeMause and Della Hasselle

Al Jazeera America

This piece illustrates the impact of “welfare reform” legislation in 1996 which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program—a very weak tool for alleviating hardship, which today helps just 1 in 4 poor children. The piece also examines how Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed policies would make things even worse.

In Florida tomato fields, a penny buys progress

by Steven Greenhouse

New York Times

This piece highlights the Coalition of Immakolee Workers’ successful efforts to curb abusive work conditions and boost pay for 30,000 Florida farmworkers. The CIW has succeeded in getting an array of major restaurant chains and retailers—including Walmart—to agree to buy only from growers who comply with the Fair Food Program.

Locking up parents for not paying child support can be a modern-day debtor’s prison

by Tina Griego

Washington Post Storyline

This story examines how unaffordable child support orders can serve as a path to incarceration—and also a promising model in Virginia that helps noncustodial parents find employment so they can afford to make payments.

Josh Eidelson’s relentless coverage of fast food strikes, tipped and low-wage workers, labor issues & workers’ rights

Previously at The Nation and Salon, and now at Businessweek, Josh Eidelson has been a crusader, tirelessly following the stories that matter to low-wage workers. (He did so much good stuff in 2014, I couldn’t pick just one!)


The media’s strange approach to low-wage workers

by Sarah Jaffe

Washington Post

Jaffe calls out her fellow journalists for treating “the people in some of the nation’s most common jobs as though they are some exotic Other rather than our neighbors, our family members, and ourselves.”

Your waitress, your professor

by Brittany Bronson

New York Times

Bronson, a college professor, shares her first-hand experience of having to work “survival jobs” in order to make ends meet on her paltry university income. As she puts it, “my part-time work in the Vegas service industry has produced three times more income than my university teaching.”

Why Poor People Stay Poor

by Linda Tirado


Linda Tirado—whom many of us know by her Twitter handle @killermartinis—leaped to internet fame when her essay in the Huffington Post on what it’s like to be poor went viral. This piece, excerpted from her book Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, highlights how “saving money costs money.”

Author’s note: To keep things fair, articles in which Center for American Progress was quoted were excluded from consideration for this list.