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Homeless Delivery

February 19, 1990|EDWARD IWATA

SAN FRANCISCO — "7.0 earthquake shakes San Francisco Oct. 17. The regular folks got a chance to find out firsthand how the homeless feel everyday. Fractured. Separated. Stranded. Scared."

--Editor Myrnalene Nabih,

in the Homeless Times

Every so often, mainstream journalists wander like anthropologists into poor neighborhoods to write about gangs, street people, the downtrodden.

Some of their articles have focused on the outward signs of poverty and decay--graffiti, drugs, rising crime rates--rather than their causes.

But reporters for the Tenderloin Times and the Homeless Times, two small community newspapers in San Francisco's Tenderloin district, write with an insider's knowledge of their neighborhood. Some of these reporters live in the grimy downtown area that is home to street people, the elderly and Asian immigrants and is just a short walk from a shiny new Nordstrom and San Francisco's Civic Center. Some of them have been homeless and poor or struggled with drug or alcohol addictions.

Reporters from the two papers cover stories that are sometimes missed or ignored by larger newspapers and television news stations. Journalists for the Tenderloin Times were the first to focus on San Francisco's homeless problem in the early 1980s. They were also the first to investigate the mental health programs plaguing Tenderloin residents and poorly run drug and AIDS education programs in the same neighborhood.

"As writers, we can make people who are comfortable at home feel what it's like to be out on the streets," says Myrnalene Nabih, editor of the Homeless Times and a former street person. "Hopefully, we can wake some people up."

The two newspapers are riding the crest of a mini-trend. In New York City, a fledging monthly called Street News focuses on celebrities, music and homeless issues. Its editor, rock musician Hutchinson Persons, plans to expand into Los Angeles, Denver and several other cities.

In the Tenderloin Times, recent stories included a feature on efforts to get clean needles to drug addicts, and an annual article that tallies the number of homeless people who died on the streets of San Francisco (110 in 1989).

Since its birth 13 years ago as a newsletter, the Tenderloin Times has garnered positive reviews in the community. In 1986, editor Sara Colm and former editor Rob Waters were named to Esquire magazine's annual "Register" of influential people.

Journalists and policy-makers in San Francisco say they respect the Tenderloin Times for its fair, aggressive coverage of controversial issues.

Colm laughs as she recalls approaching San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos at a recent fund-raiser to ask him for an endorsement for her paper. "Sure," the mayor told Colm. "The Tenderloin Times is the only paper I read that I believe."

"It's one of the strongest community papers I've seen," says Raul Ramirez, an editor at the San Francisco Examiner who teaches workshops for the Tenderloin Times staff. "It's gutsy, professional, unafraid of taking a stand."

The paper's stories on several big issues--the homeless, mental health, pedestrian deaths, tenants' rights, development--spurred local politicians to pass or change laws in those areas. Last spring, for example, the paper reported that pedestrians in the Tenderloin were twice as likely to be hurt or killed by cars as pedestrians in other San Francisco areas. City officials added traffic lights and hired crossing guards for the dangerous intersections.

Colm is most proud of her staff's reports on homeless deaths. Each year, Tenderloin Times reporters pore over hospital and coroner's records to shed light on the issue and to give names and faces to the dead.

"We dread doing this story, but it's a way to show the public the depth of the homeless problem," says Colm, a former Vista volunteer who grew up in Thailand. "There are large numbers of people dying on the streets without physicians, friends or families."

This year, reporter Bill Kisliuk found an increasing number of homeless deaths were caused by alcohol-related illnesses. His stories created political pressure, which led to city leaders funding a rehabilitation center for alcoholics that had been delayed for 18 months.

Each month, the 24-page paper prints 25,000 issues in English, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian using computers and software donated by Apple. And unlike most newspapers, its 20 or so paid and volunteer workers reflect the multicultural area it serves.

"At my first writing session with the staff," says Ramirez, "I looked around the room and saw the faces of the Tenderloin: Southeast Asians, seniors, gays, black people, Vietnam veterans. . . ."

One reporter, Sopath Pak, is a former schoolteacher and artillery officer who fled Cambodia in 1979 after the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese invasions. He escaped the death sentence imposed on many educated Cambodians by telling his captors he was raised by Buddhist monks in a temple.

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