Lawrence street newspaper a ‘labor of love’ for longtime editor

Craig Sweets has edited the local street newspaper Change of Heart for 17 years to both help the homeless and change people's perceptions of the homeless. Lawanna Crow, who stays at the Lawrence Community Shelter, is one of its vendors.

Craig Sweets’ first experience with the homeless came when he was a student at Boston University in the early 1990s. He was walking down the street when he saw a family sitting by a heat grate, trying to stay warm.

“It was a cold night, a snowy night,” Sweets said. “I felt moved to do something for them.”

He brought them food that evening, but what that experience inspired him to do later, in his hometown of Lawrence, may have had an even greater impact.

Sweets is the editor of Change of Heart, a Lawrence street newspaper founded in 1997 to raise awareness about issues facing the local homeless population. Its vendors, and many of its contributors, are homeless themselves and make money through their participation. The newspaper, which just released its spring issue, features news about local and national homeless issues, as well as poetry, essays and art.

A few years after the incident in Boston, Sweets went to see national homeless advocate Michael Stoops speak on the Kansas University campus. During a conversation afterward, Stoops encouraged Sweets to start a street newspaper in Lawrence.

Sweets, himself a poet and writer, decided to call it Change of Heart because he hoped it would not only put some extra change in the hands of homeless people but also change the public’s sentiment about the homeless. How much of a role Change of Heart played can’t be measured, but the situation for the homeless in Lawrence is definitely different than it was 17 years ago. Lawrence now has a 24-hour homeless shelter that serves hundreds of adults and children per year.

The paper started small, as a four-page black-and-white pamphlet with circulation of about 300. It has since doubled in size, quintupled in number of copies sold and sometimes comes in color (the city of Lawrence, Douglas County Courthouse, Kansas University Center for Community Outreach and Lawrence Memorial Hospital donate the printing services). Change of Heart won the award for best new street newspaper from the North American Street Newspaper Association in 1999, and six years later received a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation to pay for staff and equipment. It remains the only street newspaper in Kansas, and Lawrence is believed to be the smallest city in the U.S. to have such a publication.

Vendors ask for a $1 donation for each copy sold, returning 25 cents to the paper to help pay contributors, who get $20 per published submission. Beyond that, the often-homeless writers and artists are proud to see their names in print. They sometimes mail copies to family members to celebrate.

That opportunity likely wouldn’t exist if not for Sweets. “He’s the genius behind it,” said Loring Henderson, the longtime executive director of the Lawrence Community Shelter who is retiring at the end of next month. “He’s absolutely dedicated to getting every issue out.” Henderson sometimes has to calm Sweets down when the editor stresses over delays in receiving submissions or getting the paper printed.

“It’s a labor of love,” Sweets said of editing and laying out the paper every three months. He does it, he says, to continue to show that the homeless are “people like any other people. We have to respect them.”

Cary Strong hands out the newspapers to vendors from his business, Aimee’s Cafe and Coffeehouse, 1025 Massachusetts St. He said he was once confronted by an irate customer who wondered how the much the newspaper was actually helping the people who sold it. “Whether that $1 went to a guy it helped or that $1 went to a guy who ended up gambling or drinking with it,” Strong said, “it still educated the person who bought it.”

Of Sweets, Strong said: “He’s really the hero here. He’s the one who’s stuck with it throughout the roller coaster that it’s been. It’s hard to find a replacement for Loring, and it’s going to be just as hard to find a replacement for him.”

Lawanna Crow, who stays at the homeless shelter and has been selling the paper for more than a year, said that even though people on the streets of Lawrence can be mean to her at times, she still enjoys the experience. Regardless of how passersby treat her, she says, she never stops smiling.

“Some people … say, ‘Get a real job,’ and I say, ‘I got one — now may I interest you in a Change of Heart?'” she wrote in the paper’s latest issue. “And then they laugh and buy one.”