Friday, August 24, 2012

Street Sense

Martin Walker

While buying tomatoes today at the FRESHFarm market near the White House, I met a homeless man named Martin, who was selling newspapers and waiting to go to a drug and alcohol treatment program in West Virginia.

I had seen Martin on previous trips to the market but didn't say more than "Hi!" or smile at him.  Today, I bought a newspaper from him and we started talking.  Martin told me that as a vendor for Street Sense newspapers he is similiar to a self-employed subcontractor.  That means that when I buy a newspaper I am investing in him and Street Sense.

I told him I had seen other people around town, especially near the Metro stops, selling Street Sense, but I didn't really know much about it.  Martin said that people usually think that he and others selling the newspapers go to a central office somewhere in DC to pick up free newspapers and then the homeless people sell them to make money.  That's not the whole picture.

Martin purchases his own newspapers upfront for 35 cents/an issue to cover publishing costs and he sells the papers for a suggested donation of $1.  This means that when a newspaper is bought for $1, that 35 cents of it repays Martin for his initial purchase.  The remaining 65 cents is Martin's profit that he uses to support himself.  The average vendor can earn about $45 a day.

I was curious about Martin's story because I know life can present changes quickly and I wondered how he had gotten to this place.  I also know it takes an inner strength to live life on the streets and to stay clean and heal yourself of drugs and alcohol. 

Martin said he is 40 years old and has a 20-year-old son.  He said he has a mother, a brother and a sister who live in the area "but they have lives of their own."  He told me he once worked in a law firm many years ago as the company's debt collector.  He was hurt in a car accident and wanted to take more time off than the company allowed, so he was laid off.  Martin said that's when his life totally unraveled and the drinking and drugs "helped me forget reality."
He has lived in shelters for years, just finished a 30-day rehab program at another facility and is now enrolled in a another program at So Others Might Eat (SOME).  The SOME program involves Martin going to West Virginia for 90 days of drug and alcohol rehabilitation and extensive support treatments.  He was supposed to leave for West Virginia this week but he had to go to the dentist today to have a tooth removed.  Martin said he is grateful to be in the SOME rehab program (which paid for his dental work) because after he completes the rehab program, SOME will also help him find transitional housing and then eventually his own apartment.
I asked him what keeps him going when times get really tough.  "I have discouraging moments," Martin said, "but I really can't imagine quitting on life itself."  
Martin quietly added: "When people consistently see a person living on the streets, don't assume that it is easy to get it back together.  Once you have lost everything it is very difficult to get back to mainstream living."
I thanked Martin for his time and wished him good luck.  I told him when I come to the market next week that I hoped I wouldn't see him here.  He said next week he hoped to be in the mountains of West Virginia following his rehab program.

On the way back to my office I thought about how I had gone to buy fresh veggies but learned about another person's journey.  Martin is remarkably resilient, constantly trying to stay clean and never giving up on himself.  I hope his life continues on its present course.

Now when I see someone in a neon vest selling Street Sense newspapers on the streets of Washington, DC, I'll know how these people are working a program and that buying a newspaper can help change a life.