Chicago homeless magazine wises up
StreetWise changes leadership, plans next three years
03/30/2011 10:00 PM
Lance Bartel has never shaken a cup. Just two years ago, he was working as a chief on board for a rail company, monitoring customer safety and the trains’ efficiency. With his wife, their household made $83,000 a year.
On March 18, 2010, his life came to a screeching stop, Bartel said, when a drunk driver crashed into and killed his 48-year-old, eight-months pregnant wife and two sons, at five and three years old. Bartel’s unborn child survived the accident, but died 10 days after birth.
After the accident, the 52-year-old stopped showing up for work.
“I lost all interest for reality. I was just passing time,” Bartel said.
Falling into a deep depression and unemployed, he became homeless. Living in a train car for about a week, the Texas native contemplated suicide, but couldn’t will himself to leap in front of a moving train.
But in late October, he saw a woman with her blind son selling magazines for $2 a piece outside a downtown Walgreens.
He gave her five dollars worth in coins to explain everything she knew about the magazine, StreetWise, and by the end of November, Bartel was working as a vendor for the magazine.
He now rents a hotel room in Greektown and — when not selling StreetWise — works one day a week for the same rail company as before.
“I want more. I want to be back to where I was before,” he said.
Bartel, earning $200 to $300 dollars a week, has improved his standard of living in four months, regained a sense of hope and brightened his future — much like StreetWise, the organization, has.
Jim LoBianco, the former Commissioner for the Office of Homeless Services in Chicago, succeeded Bruce Crane as the magazine’s executive director on January 1 of this year. The organization used Crane as a quick-fix solution. He did his job, exceeded expectations and fell back into his volunteer role as a board member, maintaining relationships with donor companies and acting as an advisor.
LoBianco put forth a three-year business plan, focusing on public outreach and job diversification. On April 7, the non-profit will host the StreetWise Corporate Breakfast with Mayor Daley to attract financial support and build partnerships with Chicago businesses.
The non-profit organization based on Chicago’s Near West Side has sold magazines to the city’s poor and homeless citizens since 1992. The vendors buy the weekly magazines at 90 cents and sell them to the public for $2, turning an immediate $1.10 pocketed profit. The organization also provides social services for its vendors, such as legal assistance, computer training and substance abuse recovery. Its office doubles as a refuge for them to hang out, eat free meals, check email and borrow business attire for upcoming job interviews.
Through the end of 2011, StreetWise plans to increase public outreach and raise money from the Chicago community, using the slogan “StreetWise exists so panhandling doesn’t have to.”
“It’s a lot easier to shake a cup than it is to work selling magazines for StreetWise,” said LoBianco.
If net income grows as planned in 2012, StreetWise aims to expand its staff, catering to its vendors. LoBianco said he wants to hire someone to oversee social services and a job coach to help vendors become fully employed.
Then in 2013, the focus will shift to diversifying the vendor workforce model. “Whether that’s running food carts on the streets of Chicago or doing a delivery service,” said LoBianco.
Inheriting nearly $200,000 in debt and facing possible bankruptcy in the beginning of 2009, previous executive director Crane turned the StreetWise around after two years — posting a net income of $1,168 in 2010.
His run began at a February 2009 meeting, when the magazine’s board decided to fire former Executive Director Michael Speer and began to discuss potential replacements. Crane, then the chair of the board, was vacationing in Colorado.
It was the first monthly board meeting Crane had missed in a few years, and the next day, he received a phone call that he’d been named StreetWise’s executive director.
Crane, who has been a StreetWise volunteer and financial supporter for 16 years, said the organization faltered by focusing too much on helping vendors and not leading an effective business.
“Little things, like keeping track of the vacation time of the employees,” Crane said is where StreetWise struggled. “Not paying bills on time. Not paying late fees.”
Under Crane, StreetWise saved money by reducing its administrative costs. Dumpster sizes decreased, and some employees were trained in accounting to limit outsourcing. He also reached out to various companies, created business relationships, explained StreetWise’s social importance and received supply donations. For example, the non-profit no longer buys coffee or toilet paper.
StreetWise increased its readership and advertisement revenue by switching its platform from a newspaper to a magazine. While introducing color, the design shifted from a bi-fold to a side-bound pamphlet. Ad sales increased by more than $12,000 from 2008 to 2009. In that same time period, magazine sales also increased by nearly $100,000. Now, beginning April 1, the publication will have a new look with a lightened typeface and a wider layout, said board member Ray Gillette.
StreetWise has taken off on social media in the past couple of months, too, with 515 Facebook fans and an active Twitter account tweeting on average more than twice a day with 575 followers.
Chicago’s socially active and aware youth represent StreetWise’s highest potential growth segment, said Gillette. The theater section of the magazine will become an entertainment section, keying in on music clubs to target the younger demographic.
“The magazine can fill a niche in Chicago media communications by being Chicago-centric and socially conscious,” he said.
There still remains one problem: pocket money. People in their lower to upper 20s don’t carry much cash, usually only credit and debit, said Gillette. And StreetWise doesn’t have the capability to accept plastic.
The organization does accept anyone who is willing to turn his or her life around, striving to again become a self-sufficient citizen. (An advertisement in the magazine explicitly states “everyone qualifies, no exceptions.”)
LoBianco and his full-time, eight-person staff interact with vendors on a daily basis. He moved his desk from a secluded room to the office’s main floor to become more available for anyone who needs him or wants to talk.
The workforce resource center’s walls are lined with past StreetWise covers that Bartel helped decorate by placing StreetWise clippings and pictures of his fellow vendors underneath the glass cover of a large wooden table.
StreetWise’s unfinished ceiling, red-splattered, industrial floor and large garage entry door would make the average businessman cringe. But StreetWise is more than a business — it’s a social business.
“StreetWise means more to me than just selling the paper,” said Bartel. “It’s the family-type atmosphere that is there at StreetWise. There are some great people there.”
Photos by J. GEIL/Staff Photographer