THE BLOG

Stepping Away From Homelessness

06/20/2013 05:26 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2013

Carrying a stack of newspapers and wearing the trademark lime neon-green vest, Brian Belcher, a vendor of One Step Away, makes his way to the corner of 18th and Market in Center City Philadelphia.

Throughout the day there are hit-and-miss chances as Belcher attempts to sell the paper, which only costs a dollar and written by those who are homeless in the city.

"One Step Away, Philadelphia's first newspaper by the homeless. One dollar donation," Belcher chanted early one morning as Philadelphians busily and knowingly pass him by.

Belcher, 35, who once was homeless, understands the struggles that his peers are going through. And even though only a few Philadelphians may stop at first, Belcher is optimistic, adding that it's "still early."

When donating a dollar for a One Step Away newspaper, 75 cents goes directly into the pockets of the paper's vendors. The remaining 25 cents goes toward the cost of printing the paper.

Belcher has been a part of One Step Away for two and a half years now, it has become a means of economic support allowing him to live a "proper manner" in Philadelphia and support his three children who range from ages 1 to 6.

"I first heard about One Step Away through a friend and decided to give becoming one of their vendors a try," Belcher said.

A single thought ran through Belcher's mind as he lived on the streets of Philadelphia: how could he gain income and get somewhere further in life instead of staying in a homeless shelter.

"It was rough," he said. "It was rough, but I did it. Right now, I'm not homeless. If it wasn't for One Step Away, I would not have been able to get through my own trial and tribulations," he said.

One Step Away began as an idea Bob Fishman, CEO of Resources of Human Development, had when visiting Washington, D.C. Fishman happened on a 16-page biweekly "street" newspaper called Street Sense.

Curious, Fishman asked the vendor what the paper was about. The vendor, who was very enthusiastic, explained how the paper worked and how it had helped him out when he was homeless.

"He really kind of sold Bob on the idea," Kevin Roberts, editor-in-chief of One Step Away, said. "He came back to Philadelphia and was like, we're going to this, Philadelphia has never had a street newspaper and we're going to do this."

RHD deals with a number of social service programs throughout the city, and because of that they had listings of homeless shelters throughout Philadelphia where they could recruit supporters for the idea of One Step Away.

"We went to those places and told them that we were thinking about doing this, " Roberts said. "And they just overwhelmed us with their enthusiasm and energy. They really wanted their voice to be heard in the community, they wanted a way to tell their stories."

After 18 years in newspapers as a reporter or columnist, Roberts has been with RHD since 2009 and has served as One Step Away's editor-in-chief since its inception.

"One Step Away's first issue rolled off the presses Dec. 15, 2009; we got the January 2010 issue out before the holidays with a press conference and an event at Ridge Ave. Shelter," Roberts said. "The first issue was purchased for a dollar by Dainette Mintz, director of Philadelphia's Office of Supportive Housing."

One Step Away wants to be a vehicle that focuses on the issues of homelessness and affordable housing while also tackling issues that some may forget impact the homeless population as well.

This past presidential election was an especially busy one for the staff of the newspaper as they ventured out into the streets of Philadelphia and polling stations to not only let those who were voting know about the broad threat of the Pennsylvania Voter Identification Law, but also the threat to those who were among the homeless.

To Belcher, the fact that One Step Away is a positive effort to fix some of the issues that homeless Philadelphians are going through is a huge motivator as he prepares for his days on the bustling corner.

As he smoked a cigarette, an older gentleman who Belcher said he has encountered before, took $2 from his wallet, and handed it to him, and promised to return for a copy of the paper later on.

Roberts added that One Step Away is the voice of a population that generally doesn't have one; it's a chance for their folks to be heard.

"And, look, thousands of Philadelphia citizens have been generous and warm and friendly to our vendors, and we're grateful, but the simple fact is that distributing One Step Away on the streets can be hard work," Roberts said. "To self-identify as homeless, to have people walk past you and not look you in the eye, to refuse to see you, can be a difficult task. It's hard out there, and it beats some of folks up pretty good. And yet each day, One Step Away vendors pick up their bags and their newspapers and go out there again. I think that's worthy of support."

Roberts hopes that when people read One Step Away, they're moved by the emotion and the passion in those pages. It's empowering, he adds, to have the chance to tell your story, to be heard.

Belcher finds it difficult to think what life would be without working for the newspaper, adding that because he's been a part of the paper for so long that it does not bother him as much when people pass him by.

"Sometimes, I get a little upset, but at the end of the day it's fine," Belcher said. "These are the people that keep me from having to be in a homeless situation. When I go home at the end of the day, I might not be doing all that great, but when I look at my children they have all that they need."

To Roberts, the value of One Step Away is two-fold in that the vendors who are distributing the newspaper on the Philadelphia streets are working and are trying to change their lives, attain self-sufficiency and acquire their own housing.

"It's the fact that I'm always out here on 18th and Market. They know what I'm about," Belcher said. "I'm getting to know the people to the point that I don't have to do a lot of talking. Even if they don't give me a donation they might just say hi. Sometimes they might come to me for some suggestions, sometimes they might come to me for support."