Whats Up: Sparing Some Change for the Homeless

Posted by on Feb 4, 2012 in Home, Local, St. Louis | No Comments

by Kate Essig

Meet Paul Jackson. Paul is a fixture near the cross-walk at Grand. His denim overalls, lanyard, and catchphrase, “Does anyone have a penny, or anything, for the homeless?” are all familiar to Saint Louis University students. He’s a well known face on campus, but just how well do we know Paul Jackson?

Paul is friendly. He describes himself as shy, Baptist, forty-four, and homeless. But he wasn’t always without an address, in fact his first home was only minutes away from SLU’s campus. He was born and raised in South City, near 14th Street and Choteau. His story is one of struggle; he was one of twelve children to a single mother, he dropped out of high school after the tenth grade, he’s had one failed marriage and two stints in the penitentiary. But eventually, with the help of a Saint Louis non-profit, Paul Jackson’s story becomes one of hope.

In the fall of 2007 Paul explains that he was, “tired or of? being tired.” It was with luck that he discovered WhatsUp Magazine, an organization devoted to providing homeless men and women with an opportunity to earn an honest wage doing an honest job — selling magazines.

The concept is simple. WhatsUp Magazine is a quarterly publication that covers topics like the environment, labor, public health, local news, and more. It’s produced by WhatsUp founder, Jay Swoboda, a tiny task force of volunteers, and twenty to twenty-five homeless vendors. Together, they write the articles, produce the magazine, and distribute it around the Saint Louis area.

This seemingly simple concept is not unique to Saint Louis or even to the United States. Countries like England, Scotland, Germany, and Sweden all have cities involved in the street news movement. The newspapers vary in content, circulation, appearance, and title, but the basic idea is the same: street newspapers empower the homeless by being a “hand up” not a “hand out.” They offer employment to the economically disadvantaged and a way for the homeless to help themselves without depending on the help of others.

The street newspaper movement was brought to Saint Louis by Renaissance man, Jay Swoboda. Swoboda is part real estate developer, part graphic designer, part sustainable energy expert, and the founder of WhatsUp Magazine in Saint Louis. He began the magazine after receiving a summer service grant upon his graduation from Washington University. Swoboda started WhatsUp in Saint Louis after speaking with Aaron Goldstein, the editor of the WhatsUp magazine in Boston.  “I kind of jokingly said, ‘Ah, I should start one of these in Saint Louis.’” Swoboda explained, “And he said, ‘Definitely. That’s exactly what you should do.’”

A venture that began as a summer project has now lasted almost ten years and employed close to 800 homeless men and women in the Saint Louis area. The homeless employed by WhatsUp assist directly in the sale, production, and advertisement of the magazine. Unlike other jobs, being employed by WhatsUp offers immediate assistance to those who need it. It doesn’t require weeks of classes, an extensive application process, or months of on-the-job training. In as little as a day, homeless men and women can find gainful employment at WhatsUp without having to jump through any hoops.

“I try to get vendors to use WhatsUp as a stepping stone, as a launch pad to something else,” Swoboda explained, and for some vendors, WhatsUp becomes just that. He counted off success stories on his fingers, telling of one vendor who went on to employment at US Bank and another who is now happily married and living in South City. “WhatsUp magazine provides social support, an extra person in your corner,” said Swoboda, as he talked about vendors who’ve gone on to success after WhatsUp and stayed in touch by call, text, and Christmas card.

But Swoboda assists his vendors by doing more than just offering them a job selling magazines. He helped one vendor create a resume and send in job applications. He helped another vendor with his credit report, and another he helped find an apartment. He helped Paul Jackson get a car.

When Swoboda’s name was brought up, Paul passionately spoke about Swoboda’s “good moral spirit.” Not because he founded a magazine, but because he cared. In speaking with both Swoboda and Paul the sentiment was the same: human kindness is the best currency.

Swoboda explained, “I am of the opinion that panhandling is the first cry for help, and if you respond to that in a human way people change their mind about man, they think maybe the world isn’t a horrible place… everyone isn’t out to get me.” Panhandling is about more than asking for nickels and dimes, it’s about asking a community to recognize the reality of homelessness. Swoboda continued, saying, “You don’t have to give money, you can give human kindness. You can stop and have a conversation. You can interact with them as dignified persons. Ultimately, the best thing you can do is smile and say, ‘hey, good luck to you.”

Paul Jackson has been a presence on SLU’s campus for two years. He comes back here month after month because he likes it here. He likes the environment because, he says, “it keeps my mind.” The only complaint he has about his time on our campus are the instances when members of the SLU community walk by without making eye contact, without nodding, or smiling, or saying hello. “Give me some recognition,” Paul asks, “You don’t have to give me anything, just say ‘how you doing’- recognize me.”

The goal of WhatsUp magazine is to do just that — to get people to recognize the realness of the homeless. It gives homeless men and women a way to interact with disparate communities, communities that haven’t experienced homelessness or the realities of the economically disadvantaged.  Vendors sell WhatsUp magazine all over the Saint Louis area, reaching out to a diverse spectrum of communities with the same mission and message — to communicate the plight of the homeless. As Swoboda said, “What WhatsUp is about is just like it’s name- What’s Up. Starting a conversation and changing perspectives.”

WhatsUp magazine gives men and women like Paul an opportunity to do more than make a few dollars a day. It gives the homeless and non-homeless the opportunity to interact with each other in a positive, perspective-changing way. And while he admits he wouldn’t say no to a Chic-Fil-A sandwich, and it’s true that conversation can’t cure poverty, “Being recognized,” Paul says, “is a start.”

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