Atlantic Canada has only one street newspaper. Now under financial stress, it is in danger of leaving Halifax’s homeless without a voice.
By Laura Conrad
With its odd range of variety items, dim lighting and relaxed atmosphere, Afghan Variety is different from other convenience stores. Tucked away on Herring Cove Road in the Spryfield section of Halifax, the small shop is easy to miss. Inside, it is pleasantly disorganized, the air stale but sweet. The man working behind the counter has a warm smile. This complements the shop’s style.
This man is Juan Carlos Canales-Leyton. His customers don’t know he is the managing editor of a newspaper, Street Feat: The Voice of the Poor, the only street newspaper in Atlantic Canada. The paper is in trouble —this year it will only publish four issues at most. And the office has been moved to the back of Afghan Variety.
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Canales-Leyton says Street Feat is worth keeping paper alive. “It’s empowering,” he says. “It’s enabling people to develop skills, to make their own way and to become more productive.”
Howley says the different style of reporting and writing makes Street Feat articles appealing. Aside from teaching media studies at DePauw, Howley is also the author of a book called Community Media: People, Places and Communication Technologies. The book contains a chapter on Street Feat. In it, Howley says that Street Feat “challenges mainstream versions of reality. It reflects the living experience of the people… It’s incredibly valuable to put a face to these issues. Standard newspapers won’t go near that.”
Long-time contributor and vendor Peter McGuigan sold the first copy of Street Feat in front of the Spring Garden Road library in 1997. “I was very poor, I could not afford to buy things,” he says. “I had a lot of trouble finding a job.” Despite graduating from Dalhousie University with a B.Sc. in 1970, McGuigan many years later found himself working as a crossing guard. In 1995 he completed his master’s in history at Saint Mary’s University. Two years later, when Street Feat was born, McGuigan began writing stories about poverty and Halifax history.
These historical articles helped McGuigan’s writing get noticed, and he was asked to write a book about the south end of Halifax. In 2007, Historic South End Halifax was published by Nimbus Publishing. “A lot of people I sold the book to,” he says, “were people I sold newspapers to first.”
Street Feat debuted on the streets of Halifax in Dec. 1997. The idea for the publication came from Roberto Menendez and Hope Cottage Director Michael Burke. Both part-time social activists, Burke and Menendez wanted to offer opportunities for the people who enjoy free meals at Hope Cottage to gain work experience. From this idea they developed Hope Community Enterprises, an organization to provide support to groups of people who wanted to launch small business projects. One of these projects was Street Feat, a newspaper to be written, produced and distributed by the poor.
When it first started out, Street Feat received funding grants from the federal and provincial governments, as well as from charities. The grants were used to purchase computers and to hire three staff members: an editor, an advertising manager and a staff reporter. Canales-Leyton, the managing editor, received a salary. Ten months later, when funding ran out, the staff positions were lost. Despite no longer having a salary himself, Canales-Leyton stayed.
Having faced poverty before, Canales-Leyton felt a special connection to the project. “I grew up in Chile,” he says. “There was a lot of poverty in the neighbourhood. I guess you can say it gets to me emotionally—poverty is an ugly thing.”
Canales-Leyton recalls watching his mother going out of her way to support others, helping people who needed food or guidance. “People would come knocking on our door and ask for food,” he says. “My mother used to make sure we had more than enough for others. I saw compassion in her. That’s why I can connect.”
Canales-Leyton begins to tear up, then breaks into quiet sobs. Despite the current troubles Street Feat faces, he finds he can’t leave the paper’s contributing writers. “I fell in love with my people here. That’s what it was.”
One of these writers is Kendall Worth. He has been writing for the paper for almost six years, and spends a lot of time selling the paper, pacing up and down Spring Garden Road. Worth is a familiar face on the busy sidewalk in front of Second Cup. His voice can be heard ringing through the crowds, asking everyone to buy a copy.
Worth was living in poverty when he first heard about Street Feat. He has since written dozens of articles on topics such as poverty reduction strategy, social assistance and community development. He has dealt with many problems in his life, including mental illness. The paper offered him something important: a voice in the community.
This is something the poor are rarely afforded, while serious poverty in Halifax is getting worse. According to the 2010 Community Action on Homelessness Report Card—funded by H.R.M. and overseen by the North End Community Health Centre—Halifax has made no progress in addressing issues of homelessness over the past year. The report says approximately 1,443 adults used homeless shelters in 2009—up from 1,093 people in 2008. The number of youth using homeless shelters more than doubled, up from 82 to 176.
Media expert Kevin Howley, a professor at DePauw University in Indiana, says street media is an important resource for urban communities. During his 2001 visit to Halifax to do a field study on Street Feat, he noted, “This is native reporting. If poverty issues do get addressed in the mainstream media, it is usually by politicians, or bureaucrats, with maybe a few quotes from an activist or two.”
Street Feat is now under a lot of strain, struggling to operate with too few volunteers. Once a monthly publication, it is only able to publish four or five issues per year (just 300 copies are printed of each issue). And the paper has not been able to find a better office than the temporary one in the back of Afghan Variety.
For years they had an office in the Bloomfield Centre on Agricola Street, but three years ago they were evicted for failing to pay rent. Canales-Leyton says it was a lot easier for contributors to get together at the old office, “a common space for people to come in and hang up their hats and talk about projects.”
He is concerned about the future of Street Feat. Now 63, he is considering retirement. He is the manager of production, distribution, advertising and sales; it is fair to say the newspaper would not exist without him.
“I have tried to interest people in taking over,” Canales-Leyton says. “I don’t know if people feel that it’s just too much, or maybe I’m just not that good at delegating… nobody has shown interest.”
Through thin times and thinner, Street Feat has been pushing on for 12 years. When it was first published, its founders weren’t sure the project would last even one year.
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