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Hard News

Poor magazine gives the Bay Area's needy a forum. Its 'formerly homeless' mother-daughter editors have also created a journalism welfare-to-work program.


SAN FRANCISCO — Dee Gray would probably want this story to start with the word "I." Dee thinks the best stories are told in the first person. Her daughter, Tiny, doesn't always agree.

This is what it might look like, if Dee had her way:

I first heard from Lisa Gray-Garcia, also known as Tiny, in a long, long message on my voicemail machine about living poor in America's most expensive city. " A lot of us are affected by gentrification and poverty and how that translates to having to leave this area," she said, in a voice somewhere between nasal and squeaky. "Oftentimes, poor families are the ones who are leaving."

Other mothers and daughters may wrangle over literary license, current events and how the media shape the news, but their ruminations don't often make it into print. Dee's and Tiny's usually do. You can read them online at, a weekly news service with the motto: "All the news that doesn't fit."

Or in the pages of Poor magazine, where they write under headings like "Editors' Statement by Dee and Tiny." You can catch them on the last Monday of every month on the Bay Area's KPFA radio, if you wake up really early.

Or, if you are on welfare in the San Francisco area and fortunate in your misfortune, you can listen to them in person as part of their New Journalism/Media Studies Program. Many media and public-policy experts believe the program, which receives some funding from San Francisco County, is the only journalism welfare-to-work effort operating today.

Tiny and Dee--30 and "I'd rather not say," who describe themselves as "formerly homeless, currently at risk"--have a few goals. They want to change how the mainstream media portray poor and homeless people. They want to give voice to those who have long been silent, or at the very least not been heard. They want to change how the government gets people off of public assistance and into jobs. And they'd like to make the rent.

They are as likely to march in a demonstration as cover it. They regularly lash out at the institutions that they feel harm poor people in the name of helping; child protective services is Dee's current favorite target, although Pacific Gas & Electric, the welfare system, the California penal code, most police departments, and city halls on both sides of the bay come under regular attack too.

Their work--and articles by other PoorNewsNetwork reporters--appears in other alternative publications and has graced the op-ed pages of this city's two mainstream newspapers. The star graduate of their first year in welfare-to-work has a job writing regularly for the San Francisco Bay View, a small community paper covering the region's African American population.

Their brand of journalism favors advocacy over explanation. But if there is a place in the American media for the likes of conservative commentator William Kristol and his Weekly Standard, there's a place for Tiny, Dee and Poor.

The question, of course, is whether taxpayers should foot the bill for teaching poor and homeless people to be writers, when most welfare-to-work programs stress far more basic job skills. Not surprising, Tiny and Dee say yes. And San Francisco County agrees.

With funding from the county Department of Human Services, which administers welfare benefits here, the Media Studies Program trained eight people over the last year and will likely train another eight in the next fiscal year, says Amanda Feinstein, the agency's project director for work-force development.

"They're tutoring and mentoring one person at a time," Feinstein says. "It's small. We expect it to be--small and intensive for the right type of person."

Mother, Daughter Spiral

Into Homelessness

Berkeley, 1993. Tiny spent three days in jail for driving without a license, having too many unpaid parking tickets, no registration for the car in which she and Dee were living, and failure to appear on similar earlier charges--what she now refers to as crimes of poverty.

She was eventually sentenced to hundreds of hours of community service, which she worked off at a small nonprofit called Community Defense Inc. Osha Neumann, who runs the organization, asked her what she wanted to do. Survive. He asked her what she knew how to do. Write. Had there been a Media Studies Program at the time, Tiny would have been a perfect candidate.

"She was struggling at that point to just keep it together and needing every moment of her time to try and survive with her mom," Neumann recalls. "I said, 'I tell you what. Why don't you do that writing as your community service for us?' We do advocacy for homeless people. She wrote this article. I read it and realized that this is a really good writer."

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