"7.0 earthquake shakes San Francisco Oct. 17. The regular folks got a chance to find out firsthand how the homeless feel everyday. Fractured. Separated. Stranded. Scared."
--Editor Myrnalene Nabih,
in the Homeless Times
Every so often, mainstream journalists wander like anthropologists into poor neighborhoods to write about gangs, street people, the downtrodden.
Some of their articles have focused on the outward signs of poverty and decay--graffiti, drugs, rising crime rates--rather than their causes.
But reporters for the Tenderloin Times and the Homeless Times, two small community newspapers in San Francisco's Tenderloin district, write with an insider's knowledge of their neighborhood. Some of these reporters live in the grimy downtown area that is home to street people, the elderly and Asian immigrants and is just a short walk from a shiny new Nordstrom and San Francisco's Civic Center. Some of them have been homeless and poor or struggled with drug or alcohol addictions.
Reporters from the two papers cover stories that are sometimes missed or ignored by larger newspapers and television news stations. Journalists for the Tenderloin Times were the first to focus on San Francisco's homeless problem in the early 1980s. They were also the first to investigate the mental health programs plaguing Tenderloin residents and poorly run drug and AIDS education programs in the same neighborhood.
"As writers, we can make people who are comfortable at home feel what it's like to be out on the streets," says Myrnalene Nabih, editor of the Homeless Times and a former street person. "Hopefully, we can wake some people up."
The two newspapers are riding the crest of a mini-trend. In New York City, a fledging monthly called Street News focuses on celebrities, music and homeless issues. Its editor, rock musician Hutchinson Persons, plans to expand into Los Angeles, Denver and several other cities.
In the Tenderloin Times, recent stories included a feature on efforts to get clean needles to drug addicts, and an annual article that tallies the number of homeless people who died on the streets of San Francisco (110 in 1989).
Since its birth 13 years ago as a newsletter, the Tenderloin Times has garnered positive reviews in the community. In 1986, editor Sara Colm and former editor Rob Waters were named to Esquire magazine's annual "Register" of influential people.
Journalists and policy-makers in San Francisco say they respect the Tenderloin Times for its fair, aggressive coverage of controversial issues.
Colm laughs as she recalls approaching San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos at a recent fund-raiser to ask him for an endorsement for her paper. "Sure," the mayor told Colm. "The Tenderloin Times is the only paper I read that I believe."
"It's one of the strongest community papers I've seen," says Raul Ramirez, an editor at the San Francisco Examiner who teaches workshops for the Tenderloin Times staff. "It's gutsy, professional, unafraid of taking a stand."
The paper's stories on several big issues--the homeless, mental health, pedestrian deaths, tenants' rights, development--spurred local politicians to pass or change laws in those areas. Last spring, for example, the paper reported that pedestrians in the Tenderloin were twice as likely to be hurt or killed by cars as pedestrians in other San Francisco areas. City officials added traffic lights and hired crossing guards for the dangerous intersections.
Colm is most proud of her staff's reports on homeless deaths. Each year, Tenderloin Times reporters pore over hospital and coroner's records to shed light on the issue and to give names and faces to the dead.
"We dread doing this story, but it's a way to show the public the depth of the homeless problem," says Colm, a former Vista volunteer who grew up in Thailand. "There are large numbers of people dying on the streets without physicians, friends or families."
This year, reporter Bill Kisliuk found an increasing number of homeless deaths were caused by alcohol-related illnesses. His stories created political pressure, which led to city leaders funding a rehabilitation center for alcoholics that had been delayed for 18 months.
Each month, the 24-page paper prints 25,000 issues in English, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian using computers and software donated by Apple. And unlike most newspapers, its 20 or so paid and volunteer workers reflect the multicultural area it serves.
"At my first writing session with the staff," says Ramirez, "I looked around the room and saw the faces of the Tenderloin: Southeast Asians, seniors, gays, black people, Vietnam veterans. . . ."
One reporter, Sopath Pak, is a former schoolteacher and artillery officer who fled Cambodia in 1979 after the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese invasions. He escaped the death sentence imposed on many educated Cambodians by telling his captors he was raised by Buddhist monks in a temple.
Clutching food and clothes, Pak, his wife and their two little girls crept through the jungle for three days and finally crossed the Thailand border. Eventually they landed in Paris, then San Francisco.
Now, armed with a reporter's notebook and fluent in French and English, Pak covers Southeast Asian politics and the Cambodian community in the United States.
"I feel proud because I can tell the majority about problems Cambodians have," says Pak, swiveling back and forth in his desk chair. "Cambodian literature was all destroyed by the Khmer Rouge regime. My stories mean I am restoring our literature."
Volunteers deliver the monthly paper in shopping carts from the newspaper's tiny, seventh-floor office on gritty Taylor Street. The paper runs on a $250,000 annual budget.
The Tenderloin Times' money comes from fund-raising events, subscriptions, advertisements and grants from the United Way, the San Francisco Foundation, the Jewett Foundation and other sources, but Colm believes the paper will one day support itself.
The Homeless Times, on the other hand, doesn't have a budget. Nor does its staff hobnob with the mayor. Small cash donations from individuals paid for the first issue, which appeared last November. Another issue is due next week.
Editor Nabih and her volunteer reporters write their stories on a rickety typewriter in a one-bedroom apartment on the edge of the Tenderloin. "This is our busy office," says Nabih.
The Homeless Times staffers are not trained journalists; some are former street people, drug addicts and alcoholics searching for a voice, a soapbox for their issues. Instead of airing their opinions on Civic Center street corners, they're conducting their crusade in print.
"Because we know the streets, maybe we can save some lives by trying to be examples," says Salima Rashida Raheem, a buoyant, 51-year-old performance artist and staff writer.
"City and church policies in San Francisco cause people to lose their lives," blared one editorial. "Each homeless death should be counted as murder as long as those who have the power to help, don't (help)."
Other topics covered in the 24-page newspaper: crack-addicted babies, police treatment of homeless protesters, health and nutrition tips, worldwide hunger. A section includes poetry and book excerpts from works and authors that range from Malcolm X to the Bible.
Nabih started the Homeless Times after years of soul searching. A schoolteacher for 12 years in Chicago, she says she grew tired of the politics involved in education. "The kids were losing out," she says, "and I felt I could bring about more change outside the system."
At the same time, Nabih, a former Baptist, found spiritual solace as a black Muslim. During her prayers, she says, Allah sent her a message--"a divine mandate"--to use her talents to help the poor.
Inspired by her new-found faith, Nabih roamed across the country, living in homeless shelters and cheap hotels in New Orleans, West Virginia and San Francisco. She hopes the Homeless Times will spur street people to take control of their lives. They can buy the paper for 20 cents, then resell copies for 50 cents and keep the extra money. "There's that old saying, 'An idle brain is the devil's workshop.' " says Nabih. "We want to give homeless people motivation."
The editor and her writers would also like the newspaper to shatter stereotypes the public holds of the down-and-out.
"I want to make people aware that homeless people aren't all a bunch of nuts on the street," says reporter Kevin Dallas, a former student at Marin Community College and a recovering alcoholic and drug user. "There are homeless people who are smart and creative. They have a lot of talents. They weren't born homeless."
Most important, Nabih wants to see the Homeless Times influence politicians, government bureaucrats and the public to spend more time and energy on the homeless issue. "The yuppies have turned into yappies," says Nabih. "All they do is talk and do nothing."
Like the staff members of the Tenderloin Times, Nabih sees the deaths of people on the street as simple, brutal proof that current public policies on the homeless aren't working.
"We can't allow this situation to fester and grow," she says. "People are losing their lives unnecessarily."