ST-Caserta, Sabrina
About My Street Sense Internship:

Street Sense is a Washington D.C. based street paper that features 16 pages of content on a bi-weekly basis. Founded in 2003, it provides economic opportunities for the District’s homeless and impoverished community by employing them as vendors- able to buy the paper for 50 cents and sell it for at least two dollars.  With vendors dispersed throughout the city, selling at Metro Stations, parks and markets, Street Sense’s circulation reaches roughly 16,000 every other week.

Roughly 50 percent of Street Sense’s content is written by the current and formerly homeless community. They contribute stories, illustrations, poems, opinion pieces and editorials. The rest of the content is produced by volunteers, advocates, interns and other professionals.

Street Sense focuses on issues of social justice, including poverty, homelessness and the myriad of issues which accompany the two. The paper covers District politics relating to homelessness, as well as features on shelter conditions, affordable housing, street conditions and personal stories. In any given paper you will find a mixture of vendor profiles, news briefs and stories as well as features on an issue.

There are two sides to Street Sense and they overlap: there’s the editorial side and the vendor side. The editorial side is responsible for the newspaper, that’s where I work. We are responsible for pitching our stories, researching, investigating and writing said story, as well as laying it out to make it print ready in InDesign. As an editorial intern, I was also responsible for editing sections of the paper before it was sent to final print, updating Street Sense’s website with our articles, as well as sending stories to the NewsWire Service.

The vendor side of the organization manages roughly 500 vendors- over 100 of them are consistently active, and selling the paper on a regular basis at points throughout the District. The vendors are also involved in the myriad of programming Street Sense provides. They offer classes ranging from illustration to creative writing, photography to documentary film. The content produced in the workshops will most likely end up in Street Sense’s paper. However, for the first time ever, Street Sense’s Media Center is putting on a documentary film exhibition where four of the vendors have pitched, written, filmed and produced their very own documentaries. In addition to writing every week, selling papers and working on the website, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to attend Documentary Film class every Monday with the other vendors.

My work schedule was 9-5 every weekday except Thursdays, when I would attend classes. As I mentioned earlier, Mondays I would attend the documentary film workshops, as well as work on any ongoing projects that I had. My weeks would vary- if it was print week, Tuesday was dedicated solely to editing and laying out the paper on InDesign. Other days, I could be sent out to a budget oversight hearing or to an event to write a news brief on. If I was working on a story I pitched, it was up to me to find sources and to go out and interview them.

Several times throughout the semester, we would have meetings with various organizations. For instance, Street Sense would host editing workshops where we would flush out story ideas, get our work edited and be able to speak to reporters about some of the struggles they face when covering stories. This was great insight into the professional field of journalism and allowed me to network with individuals who worked at various media outlets.

In addition to workshop type meetings, we had a rage of classes where we would learn different software and multimedia platforms. Our editor, Eric Falquero would set up classes where outside professionals would come to our offices and teach us Storify, Tableau, Datawrapper and other platforms to help enhance our stories digitally.

Once a week, I was responsible for selling papers to the vendors. This means the vendors would come to our location and seek to purchase the newest edition. I would go downstairs, and sell the papers to them for 50 cents a copy. The majority of the time, I would end up talking with them, hearing their stories and getting to know what the pulse of the community was. This was immensely helpful when deciding what stories to write. I would get a majority of my story ideas just from talking to the vendors. More times than not, they would be talking about an issue that affects them that no one has really covered, they would act as my resources, providing insight on whatever topic I was focusing on.

This is where Street Sense is a unique organization, the interns, volunteers and small staff- of only about five people- are working with the homeless, providing them with an outlet, and empowering them, while simultaneously writing about the issues that plague their community.

The first story I covered for Street Sense was called, “Doing it For the Kids: Weathering a Family Shelter.” It began as a news brief on the one-year anniversary of Relisha Rudd, a 7-year-old girl who was living with her family in DC General emergency shelter- the largest family shelter in the District. After doing some investigating and attending press conferences on the anniversary of her disappearance, I decided to venture down to Southeast, where DC General stood to see if I could get a look at the shelter’s conditions. Upon arriving to the DC General campus- which boasted not only the shelter, but a rehab facility and a prison- I got a very different view of the District than the one you might see at Capital Hill. This was a dilapidated, dirty campus littered with children, drug addicts and guards.

I started talking to some people outside the shelter, one woman was very forthcoming- LeDawn Garris, who became my main source of the story. She told me of the mice, scabies, drugs and weapons that all called DC General home, as well.

After writing up the story, it turned into a two page feature spread that ended up being our cover story for that edition. Some vendors living at DC General at the time even shared with me that the guards from the shelter were reading the story, shocked that women were stuffing knives into their bras and evading the metal detectors by saying, ‘wire bra.’ They were trying to find solutions to some of the problems highlighted in the feature.

In addition to writing news briefs, I covered issues of affordable housing, sexual assault on the streets, urban farming in D.C. ‘food desserts,’ and the plights of transgender homelessness. Each and every one of these stories allowed me to delve further into the homeless community, teaching me how to navigate some very sensitive issues when it comes to sharing a person’s story. I got a chance to visit urban farming communities in the District, the only transgender shelter in the entire city and a myriad of organizations.

Some of the people who I had the privilege of speaking with were sharing parts of their story that had been the very hardest aspects of their lives- their experiences with sexual violence, mental health issues they face every day, sleeping on park benches in the middle of the winter, and even drug addiction and prostitution. I learned how to speak with people about these topics, I learned how to cover these topics appropriately, fairly and objectively.

It’s easy to talk about what to do and what not to do when you’re sitting in a classroom with 20 other kids and a professor whose been there, it’s completely different when you’re sitting across the table from someone pouring their story out to you, or when you finally sit at that computer screen and stare at a blinking cursor, wracking your brain for the right words to explain what they went through. It’s easy to look up facts and statistics to support a quote, it’s another to not let someone’s story sink into you. It’s one thing to layout pictures on InDesign and perfect the layout of your story and it’s another to go down to some undesirable places and get the photo.

Street Sense afforded me the opportunity to learn through experience; they allowed me to insert myself into a community- one with struggles and hardships, along with triumphs and light- and write about what I saw, what I heard, what’s really going on.

They kept my hand on the pulse of the community and that allowed me to gain a greater understanding of homelessness, poverty, social justice and equality. Additionally, it made me a stronger reporter- I can now cover those sensitive issues, I can tackle harder stories and write long-form in-depth pieces on them. That’s something that cannot necessarily be taught in a classroom.

It’s at this point that I would like to touch on workplace culture; I’ve hinted at this before, but this is where Street Sense is truly unique. The allowance for intern and vendor interaction is what helps keep the reporters grounded in their community, but you also learn so much about people’s lives.

Some stay farther away than others, I can’t help but let people in. I’ve become very good friends with the core group of vendors- about 15-20 who are there almost daily, 3 times a week at least. I use the word friend because though these are people that I worked beside, they have impacted my life in ways that they probably would never understand even if I tried to explain it to them.

Their stories all differ, ranging from Sasha: a 30-somethings mother of 2-year-old Eboni, living at DC General because she couldn’t stay at home after she was sexually assaulted 12 years ago, to Reggie: a 30 year-old grassroots community organizer who just got into rapid rehousing, he was left homeless after his mother passed and his father kicked him out. Then of course there’s Patty: a 60 year old singer who suffers from major mental health issues living in CCNV, and Shernell: another senior citizen who carries her 200 lb. bag everywhere she goes, including the airport at night to sleep. Small pieces of their lives come out in various ways, sometimes you’re just having a regular conversation, other times, they just need to talk. Their stories enrich the atmosphere, grounding anyone who dares to take a moment to hear them.

Sometimes the environment can be hostile, I was yelled at by a random vendor for ‘looking at him the wrong way.’ He proceeded to call me a ‘stupid, white bitch.’ Of course he got thrown out, had to apologize and was looked down upon by the other vendors that witnessed it.

It’s tough, you have to realize that the people you’re working with are not Sue from accounting who just got engaged and Mark from sales. You don’t meet at the water cooler and talk about the game the night before. The people you’re working with are at the lowest points in their life- they are without a home. You don’t know what happened to them the night before, and you have to be accepting.

Despite a few disgruntled vendors, the majority are the happiest I’ve ever seen. So grateful to be a part of Street Sense- it took them in the same way it took me in, unquestioning and unyielding. Their positivity is radiant and the attitudes they carry with them- along with their baggage- is inspirational.

Street Sense is an organization that makes a difference in the lives of some of the most vulnerable in the country, the homeless. With every investigative story published, and every documentary film produced, they are sending the message out that homelessness is still pervasive, and these people are not invisible- they have voices, and thoughts, hopes and dreams and struggles and they deserve to be heard.

I believe that journalism has the power to change the world, or at least the course of history. That’s the reason why I became a reporter. I want to help to shed light on the cruelty of the world, whether it’s writing about poor shelter conditions or the struggles trans-females face when they’re forced into all-men shelters. With Street Sense, I felt like I was helping to make a difference in the District’s homeless community.

So, this internship taught me way more than just InDesign and formatting, more than just interviewing and investigating, writing and editing, it taught me about myself- and what I want out of my future career. I know that I can’t work a job, just so I have a job. I know that I want to make a difference through journalism- writing, multimedia, documentary film- by sharing people’s stories. I have had a few internships and I don’t know if I’ll ever come across an outlet quite like Street Sense. This past semester has truly reaffirmed for me why I want to be a journalist, it taught me to look at the things I don’t want to see and show them to the world.

If there’s any message that sums up Street Sense’s mission, it would be words from Street Sense’s executive director, Brian Carome,  “I hope one day we’ll be out of business because there’s no more homelessness. Then, maybe we’ll turn to the environment and start reporting on that. But, until then, we’re going to share these stories.”