Chinatown center creates homeless newspaper, hopes city lowers vendor fees.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Clad in a Franciscan monk’s robe and sporting a large wooden cross around his neck, Brother Robert Mills could pass for patron saint of Salinas.
In addition to serving the city’s neediest residents at Dorothy’s Place, a shelter in Chinatown run by the Franciscan Workers of Junipero Serra, the grizzly-bearded missionary and longtime homeless advocate is working to launch a newspaper that gives voice to the homeless and impoverished.
“I want to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” Mills says, paraphrasing American journalist Finley Peter Dunne.
Voices of the Street, a project of the Chinatown Community Learning Center, also aims to offer writing workshops, computer literacy training and jobs for homeless people selling the paper on street corners citywide.
“The paper’s going to provide the means for people to learn to do things they haven’t done before,” says Mills, a Salinas native who has worked with Oakland homeless paper Street Spirit.
Peter Nelson, who heads the Community Learning Center, says the paper’s set to launch in mid-December. They’ve struck a deal with the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian to print 1,000 copies of their first issue for just $200, and have secured financial support from the Salinas Downtown Community Board, the Asian Festival Committee and the Chinese American Citizens’ League.
But the project could stall if organizers can’t get a break from the city on solicitation fees. Salinas wants to charge Voices vendors $1,200 per year for selling the paper on city sidewalks.
Nelson says that’s too steep for a grassroots project: “We want to have multiple vendors, and want them to take home 75 cents of every dollar per paper they sell.”
City officials have had a tumultuous relationship with street vendors. In 2005 the City Council placed a moratorium on mobile-business licenses; two years later, they lifted it.
Redevelopment Project Manager Don Reynolds says officials squabbled for years with ice cream street vendors over the number of permits allowed, and over increased business license fees. But he thinks the city will take a different tack with Voices of the Street.
“There’s a lot of compassion for these folks,” he says.
Amit Pandya, who owns the Green Phoenix gas station on Main Street and is president of the Oldtown Salinas Association, supports the project, but foresees obstacles.
“I think public stigma toward the homeless is there,” he says.
He thinks merchants and patrons might be more comfortable if vendors dropped papers at storefronts instead of selling them on street corners, or if vendors wore clothing advertising their affiliation with the paper.
Nelson says he hasn’t yet met with the city about the project.
“Our main focus now is on gathering allies and contributions to the paper,” he says.
Residents of Dorothy’s Place are preparing submissions from poetry to opinion pieces, and Mills is recruiting more would-be writers on Soledad Street. He hopes the paper will help bridge the physical and cultural gap between Chinatown and Oldtown.
“We are a ghetto in the Warsaw tradition,” Mills says of Chinatown. “There’s a fence and a railroad that separates us from Main Street. We’re hoping the paper becomes a literary and artistic bridge connecting the two areas and giving a real face to the homeless.”