By Dionne Gilbert | vendor and vendor coordinator
In all areas of life, there are gray parts. The definition of homelessness is no exception to this.
Yes, there are, if you must, homeless and non-homeless. But in between these labels you have the gray—former homeless, close to homeless, and impoverished.
Traditionally, most if not all street papers are alive because of homelessness and our shared passion in someday eradicating it. That will probably not happen in my lifetime, but we can dream and believe for a better world in the future, can we not?
Someone recently made a negative remark to me about the vendors using the phrase “help the homeless” while selling the paper. He was upset because he knew the vendors using that pitch were not homeless themselves. He said these people needed to stop saying that if they are not homeless. And he’s right. In the basic understanding of the word—they were no longer sleeping in the streets or in the shelters.
But then there’s the gray.
I explained to him—the statement comes from their past, and certain kind of present. Many of them were at one time homeless and that is how they came to be vendors. If you are successful using the word—even if people still don’t truly understand the idea of homelessness—well, you work, save money, get a place to call your own.
We even have a few vendors who have never known the adventure of literally being on the street. We do not worry about these distinctions in the office.
I applaud every vendor for getting papers and going out every day to vend them. I also respect them because they have made the choice of dignity over poverty.
Vending the VOICE is not an easy job (I would know). The weather conditions aren’t always great and some days, our vendors question the choice they’ve made to stand on a corner. Yet still, they do it.
So no, we might all be, in fact, homeless by your definition, but we’re still in housing situations that are unstable and unsatisfactory, and trying to improve upon that.
Out of curiosity, I decided to do the math. I wondered where our vendors stood—how many had a place and how many were still “homeless,” i.e., in shelters and/or staying in a motel.
Based off the paperwork from January, we had 59 active vendors. Out of them, 29 had housing and 30 do not. The majority of those who now have housing did not when they started with the VOICE.
We pride ourselves in this. We don’t ask them to live their lives a certain way. We provide them with some tools to help them get to a better place—whatever that is for each individual.
Again, the gray.
And homelessness is in the VOICE’s roots. We were started by the homeless, for the homeless, and we have stayed true to those roots, though we’ve broadened our editorial definition a little more. We are not going to congratulate one of our vendors for getting housing and back on their feet, and then turn around and deny them work because they are no longer classified as “homeless” in some dictionaries.
And for some of us, the VOICE isn’t just a means to get by—it’s our happy place and our calling.
As the vendor coordinator and in transitional housing, I still vend. For me, it has more to do with my personal philosophies—the short and sweet version is this: At the end of the day, or the end of your life, what is more important? Is it the money, things, titles, accomplishments, or the people?
How many people you were able to reach out to today in ways that true mattered or were meaningful? How many people did you reveal a point of view that was healthier—get to smile, touch a soul, or laugh when they were hurting? How many people did you give the gift of simply sitting and listening to their story?
As a vendor, I get to do that every time I’m out there.
I was reminded of this in a talk with someone recently, who was reaching the sunset of their life, and that was what it came down to, what really matters in this thing called life. The people.
Most of the vendors will come in to the office to share a story—kind patrons and customers, gifted coffees, a kind word, exchanged advice. It makes them happy; they feel touched and very connected.
So regardless of if that vendor is defined as homeless—was homeless, could be homeless, will be homeless—they are still out there helping to break the dreaded stereotypes that go with that label. So if you hear the phrase, “help the homeless,” maybe look outside the box a little, to that little gray area that fits in to every aspect of this thing called life. ■