The streets of Madison are lined with sleeping bags pushed against cement walls and bodies huddled against the biting Wisconsin cold — people without a place to call home.
Among these thousands of suffering Madisonians are the writers and vendors of Street Pulse Newspaper.
The paper provides a platform for people to express to the community the hardships they endure while experiencing homelessness — hardships which are many. It also allows writers and vendors some liberation from the everyday struggles of homelessness.
“Sure I may not be on the tonight show or Ellen, but we have freedom to share our opinions and views and Street Pulse in one way I get to share what I think and how I feel,” said Art Paul, who worked for the newspaper since its creation and is now a well-known Madison musician.
Street Pulse hit the presses in 2005 when Coordinator Mel Motel contacted the Madison-Area Urban Ministry with a proposal to start a street newspaper that could act as a source of income for people facing homelessness. The paper has endured since then, providing not only jobs but also a voice for the homeless community.
Street Pulse Editor-in-Chief and Vendor Coordinator Karen Andro said the mission of the paper is to build community, empower, enlighten and educate.
“We’re bringing folks together around our core values,” Andro said. “And the way we do that is by treating folks who’ve suffered the trauma of homelessness with dignity and respect.”
Vendors purchase papers for around 25 cents and sell them around the city for a dollar. Papers are distributed to several locations — The Beacon Homeless Shelter, First United Methodist Church and Bethel Lutheran Church — where sellers can pick them up on weekdays. Each month, vendors collectively sell about 2,500 papers.
Street Pulse vendors sell at locations spanning from the Willy Street Co-op on the East side to Trader Joe’s on the West side, as well as several places around Capitol Square and on State Street. Vendors have a range of selling styles, doing what they can to shrink their stack of papers.
“I’m not an aggressive seller, I don’t tap on windows, honk horns… If people want a paper they’ll come up and get one,” said Chris Hubbard, who has been homeless for over eight years and has worked for Street Pulse for five years.
Having worked for the paper for so long, Hubbard has in-depth knowledge of both the patterns and unpredictability of selling. One day, someone might give 10 or 20 dollars; on another, he might sell only one paper. And he said rain or cold easily undermines an entire day of selling.
Times are also rough during February when people get their bills, Hubbard said, but he does especially well during Christmas when people are feeling in the spirit of giving.
Hubbard is not the only person suffering from homelessness in Madison. In 2017, there were nearly 3,000 people without a home, according to the bi-yearly count required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That number does not include people living in motels or “couch-surfing” temporarily at other people’s homes.
According to Andro, homelessness is sometimes misunderstood by people who have never experienced it.
“I want people to have more empathy that there is no one thing that causes homelessness, it’s usually the culmination of many things,” Andro said. “But it tends to stem from hardship and trauma.”
One common misconception of homelessness is that people aren’t working, which is simply incorrect, according to Madison-Area Urban Ministry Executive Director Linda Ketcham.
“We have a lot of people in Madison and Dane County who work — often multiple jobs — and who cannot afford housing,” she explained. “Wages haven't kept up with the increases in rent and we don't have enough truly affordable housing in Madison.”
Additionally, people experiencing homelessness may suffer physical and mental health problems and are more likely to be victims of a crime than perpetrators.
“You’re not a bad person just ‘cause you’re homeless,” Hubbard said.
Ricki Smart — who began writing for Street Pulse in 2006 — hopes to write for the Isthmus, but she said she’ll never leave the street paper behind. Even though she’s now off the street, she described the intense sense of inferiority she felt while suffering homelessness.
“A lot of guys would try to get me to go home with them, and even though I was homeless I wouldn’t do it,” Smart said. “They were treating me like I was a lower part of society. I just felt dirty.”
Hubbard also recounted in stark terms the struggles he faces daily. He spoke about his aversion to shelters, where many people are sick. He recalled cramped rooms, “chainsaw snoring” and the stench of socks that hadn’t been changed for six months. He said he prefers to be out in the fresh air, though the street has its own dangers.
“Eight and a half years homeless and I still got all my toes,” he said. “And, I want to keep all my toes … ‘cause, well, I don’t know anybody who would not want to have their toes.”
If in the future, he gets a place of his own, Hubbard said he’ll frame his winter coat, which he’s worn all eight winters that he has spent on the streets of Madison.
Smart, who has written passionately since the age of 14, said putting pen to paper is akin to therapy for her. Having dealt with addiction before she eventually got off the street, she hopes her pieces about recovery reach other people with similar struggles.
“Knowing that I’m helping others through my words gives me an overall sense of peace, even if I reach just one person,” she said. “Knowing what’s going on in our community and letting others read it even if they’re not going through it — that benefits the community as a whole.”
Smart advises other writers to be true to their own voice and, most of all, to never give up.
The mission of Street Pulse extends to not only the homeless community but also members of the Madison community who are able to do their laundry, wake up in the morning to a pot of coffee and sleep in their own beds at night. What’s necessary for change is understanding, according to Andro.
“It doesn’t cost a darn thing to treat people with respect,” she said.
As long as Street Pulse exists, members of the homeless community will find solace in it, whether that means selling it despite the cold to pay for their own food or writing to advocate for themselves and others suffering the trauma of homelessness.
“At least I got a job and I keep some kind of happiness,” Hubbard said, “For now that’s all I got — some kind of happiness.”