Groundcover News editor-in-chief Lindsay Calca sorts papers while Cindy Gere and Ken Parks embrace in the newsroom Saturday, October 14. Jeremy Weine/Daily. Buy this photo.

“Something is being made in this room.” 

I hadn’t heard many other people speak as passionately about a space as Groundcover News editor-in-chief Lindsay Calka spoke of their office. I descended late Monday morning into the basement of Bethlehem United Church of Christ: It was a space in motion, a breathing entity. Over text to The Statement’s photographer, I described it as “an office, kitchen, lounge, storage all in one. And people seem to always be there.” All these functions mix the character of the space into its own distinct spirit.

Groundcover News is a ‘street paper’ — meaning that the vendors of the paper are unhoused or housing insecure persons — and in the case of Groundcover, the paper sales serve directly as income for the vendors. Outside of the vendors, the paper is almost completely run by volunteers. 

The prevalence of street newspapers may be growing, but still constitute not even a fraction of the news industry. Although the first modern street paper is widely regarded as New York City’s Street News founded in 1989, the unhoused and those afflicted by poverty have used the news as a means to reflect issues not covered by the mainstream at least as far back as the early 20th century (The start date varies based on one’s definition of what qualifies a newspaper as a street paper). Today there are more than 100 street papers published globally in at least 34 countries. 

This week I read Groundcover News’s October 1st edition from front to back: it cost two dollars. Stories ranged from a touching obituary for community member Brian Coliton, the conflicting social legacy of the Fleming Administration Building as it’s being torn down, a contemplative historical piece on the meaning behind Indigenous People’s Day and an anonymous contribution on the disturbing conditions inside Michigan prisons that advocates for guard bodycams. 

Vendors wrote about half of the pieces in the edition. Lindsay described the paper as representing “hyperlocal community voices.” Groundcover doesn’t attempt to tackle all areas of news reporting, though topics “are always timely,” Lindsay said. “If it’s a big story connected to the social service landscape or conditions of poverty or homelessness, we’re covering that. Social justice news, community opinion and creative pieces are our niche.” 

Groundcover vendor Laurzell Washington calls Groundcover a “beautiful process of journalism” and his work “fulfilling in terms of dealing with people. You’ll be surprised who you meet… All sorts of people have a story to tell.” 

Laurzell is a great conversationalist; I met him while he was making a sandwich, grabbing lunch in the newsroom. He possesses a thoughtful demeanor, and an empathy that won’t take shit, but will forgive. We took residency in two chairs that sat just right, sinking to comfort. I asked him what made Groundover work.

“The average person tries to work with each other,” he started. “And a lot of employees come from the homeless sector, so I think a lot of people are motivated with Groundcover. If you been somewhere and understand where somewhere is, you ain’t so quick to put someone else down.”

The importance of understanding a place was a common thread throughout a lot of my conversations with the Groundcover team. 

As we got to know one another, Laurzell and I realized we both had lived in Massachusetts and Michigan. We reflected on our experiences in both places, similarities and differences. Our conversation also covered politics, from the Russian-Ukraine war, the FBI seizure in Mar-A-Lago to why people are drawn to Trump. Laurzell recently wrote an article for Groundcover on the war in Ukraine.

In Lindsay’s own words, the biggest piece of Groundcover is that “it invites people into conversation and relationship.” Groundcover has a “dual-prong mission of low barrier employment (and uplifting) community voices, voices that are marginalized,” she asserted. How these two parts of Groundcovers’ mission “meet in the middle is you have to buy the paper from someone, and that to people can be revolutionary.” 

When I first bought my paper, I was walking back from the pitch meeting for this piece at the Daily. I don’t remember my vendor’s name, but I remember that we laughed about technology. He told me to put his vendor number into the caption for my venmo payment for the paper. QR codes for cashless payment can be found on the bottom right corner of Groundcover papers — a feature Lindsay worked hard for. That night I was just beginning to come down sick, so I preferred to rush home. Still, in an increasingly digital world, unforeseen interactions tinge it a little rosier. 

English 126 – “Community-Engaged Writing” and 221 – “Literature and Writing Outside The Classroom” have both developed relationships with Groundcover over the past few years. I spoke with Prof. John Buckley, instructor of both of these courses, who spoke to the profundity of the interactions street papers like Groundcover initiate.

“To make change in society, everyone has to work together,” he said. “In order to get everyone to work together, you need thousands of one-on-one conversations. In order to buy the paper, you are a human talking to another human. Trading compassion fatigue for a moment of empathy.” 

Jay, the other vendor I spoke with, who refrained from providing his last name, also identified the ways in which Groundcover fosters social good. He emphasized the economic opportunities Groundcover provides vendors, and how the relative stability of that income generates other opportunities. Cleaning services and boober businesses have both grown from the Groundcover community, Jay said.

“You’re learning things about business and managing money by working here that’s not understood by the average person… What I love about Groundcover (is) if you want to learn, it teaches you how to fish.” Or, it’s better to be taught a skill than just be given the benefits. 

Jay emphasized in much of our conversation how transformative it is for one’s mindset to transition from having to constantly think about the next meal and where to sleep, to being able to consider one’s livelihood and the world around them. Employment centers like Groundcover “bridge the gap,” so people can create for themselves thanks to a community of people that genuinely care.

Yet, not all services for the unhoused and housing insecure promote the same opportunities for all. Sometimes the altruistic people running these organizations center themselves via “criteria of helping” that doesn’t always effectively meet the challenges of poverty. One example Jay points to is the prominence of organizations for those struggling with drug or alcohol addiction whose tactics don’t always effectively battle addiction.

Simultaneously, those who are food and housing insecure for less altruistically popular reasons struggle for similar aid. Jay concludes his thoughts, “Forget free college. The idea that everyone can eat, that alone, and basic shelter, those things can change the world.” 

I sought from my interviewees how the Daily, a paper so intrinsically tied with a mammoth institution, relates to the city of Ann Arbor. Lindsay gave her praises for the rigorousness and investigative work of our journalism.

But because the vast majority of the Daily staff completely changes every four years, and are, for the most part, not from Ann Arbor, “there’s a bit of a missed connection. There’s something that can be gained from being in a place for a while… The Daily is very University-centric not in content, but in its perspective, consciously or unconsciously.”

Without taking credit away from Lindsay, I doubt she’s the first to make this observation. In fact, in reverse, John praises street papers as they reach “from the ground up,” a quality that’s “inherently more democratic, more socioeconomically varied, and provides a crucial counterweight to the corporate thumb on the scales of American and global media.”  

Time is needed for a space like the basement of Bethlehem UCC. Not for the desks, phones, chairs, fridge or clothing rack, but to nurture the air, the unseen qualities that give name to what it is. Time is also needed for effective community building. Relationships must be built, one brick at a time. Agendas and criterias must grow and be formed together, not by whoever has the most power. And every one-on-one conversation is another step to a community. 

And our community is so much larger than this school. Often, I’ve found the status quo of most University clubs and organizations I’ve engaged with to be very insular. The most genuine student engagement with the broader community at this school is through the odd interactive courses in areas of Ann Arbor and Detroit, of which most are unaware. 

For those who want to see social progress in the world, a part of your answer is here, twice a month: two dollars for a paper and a conversation. At least when you can. And once you begin to immerse yourself as a part of this process, you’ll start to naturally consider how your communities can be transformed.

Activism is local. Don’t harden your face. Buy the paper. Chat briefly. Or for a while. 

Groundcover papers are published the 1st and 15th of every month. You can find vendors in downtown Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti wearing a badge. Vendors don’t wear uniforms. 

Laurzell usually sells by the Liberati bookstore, the Food Co-op or around W Ann and S Main near the Main Party Store and Chapella’s. 

Jay usually sells at Main and Liberty at Cherry Republic or State St in front of Nickels Arcade. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Groundcover and/or are interested in volunteering, linked here are the Groundcover Volunteer Interest Form and Groundcover Linktree.

Statement Columnist Nate Sheehan can be reached at nsheehan@umich.edu.