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Street Fight (Street Life II)

By Kathy Y. Wilson · January 17th, 2002 · Your Negro Tour Guide
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Mayor. Charlie Luken, meet Riccardo Taylor. Taylor is a writer, Streetvibes vendor and activist. He wants you and every other frightened, uninformed and privileged Cincinnatian to know that, in the act of doing his job, he's not "hurting" downtown Cincinnati -- and neither is Streetvibes.

You'll recall that last month Luken called for the City Solicitor's Office to draft new anti-panhandling regulations and specifically pointed to the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless (GCCH) as doing Cincinnati a "disservice" by "arming" homeless Streetvibes vendors with newspapers (see "Street Life," issue of Dec. 13-19).

"I think Luken is misinformed about what it entails and what is at stake," Taylor says of threats to his livelihood. "It (Streetvibes) gives so much support to people who are homeless. He's not looking at the whole picture, just a few incidents or the bad behavior of a few vendors."

Taylor makes a good point. One bad vendor don't spoil the whole bunch, just like one bad mayor don't spoil the whole city.

Selling Streetvibes isn't a hobby or a way to make quick cash. It's not fun. Have you ever heard the collective butt-clinching of a pack of lunchtime pedestrians when a Streetvibes vendor approaches? It's a wonder vendors make any kind of living, but they do, and the ones who sell regularly are serious about it.

Vendors undergo orientation. They sign a contract stating they understand and will abide by GCCH's rules. There's a two-day waiting period, separating get-rich-quick vendors from serious entrepreneurs.

Then they're given a coveted badge, and their first 10 papers are free.

Some do unload those first 10, never to be heard from again. But many others return and become long-standing vendors.

Luken claims to have had a "bad experience" with a Streetvibes vendor. He probably did. Disenfranchised folks don't like being steamrolled over, so the vendor probably had a few choice words for the mayor.

And based on that, Luken is trying to get City Hall to throw up roadblocks for vendors in the name of curtailing panhandling on downtown streets.

Let's not confuse working people with beggars. Let's not confuse self-righteousness with classism.

It's true that some of the 32 or so badged Streetvibes vendors might be homeless. But when they're wearing a badge identifying themselves as vendors and engaging pedestrians huckster-style to move papers, they're not panhandlers. They're working.

I know it's an oxymoronic concept to wrap your psyche around -- the idea of homeless people working for a living -- but it does actually happen. And by bad-mouthing, demonizing and attempting to stifle Streetvibes vendors, Luken perpetuates the myth that our downtown streets are spooky obstacle courses for the uninitiated.

Plus, it just plain looks mean when you try to bully a bunch of otherwise downtrodden folks trying to make a living.

The vendors don't want sympathy. They want the right to make a living, just like all those Sunday N-quirer vendors who populate busy intersections across town waving papers. Will the city do unto Sunday paper vendors as it's trying to do unto Streetvibes vendors?

Not content to wait for the other boot to come down on them, more than a dozen Streetvibes vendors, supporters and volunteer organizers are meeting regularly to plan preemptive strikes. They fully understand their rights and the risks to their livelihood.

They also know they'll have to present themselves as the antithesis to what the general public believes them to be. So expect to see these people on the news, in the papers and to hear them on the radio in coming weeks.

"Mayor Luken cannot magically wave his hands to make Streetvibes disappear," says Susan Knight, homeless advocate and a volunteer working to organize the vendors. "What the mayor can do is make it hard, make obstacles that would make it very difficult for vendors to sell Streetvibes. He can use his political savvy ... to work within the Constitution to hinder the program, the entire program.

"What we're trying to do is take the initiative before anything gets done. We're saying, 'Hey! Mayor Luken! You can't take this away.' "

Know that just because some in this class-stricken city think homeless people who have the gall to try to make a living are scabs on the city's otherwise unblemished candy-coated shell doesn't mean they can be swept under the pavement. Taylor, for one, isn't having it.

"It's obvious the paper itself cannot do anything to hurt downtown," he says. "This has allowed me to rebuild my dignity and regain my self-esteem."

I challenge the mayor to stop making uninformed decisions. And he can thank me later for the introduction.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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