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“Having spent most of my career working on issues of poverty and homelessness, I realized a long time ago that the single most effective way to combat these problems is employment.”

If you’ve ever spent some time in Chicago, you’ve likely met a StreetWise vendor.  StreetWise is a nonprofit organization that produces a weekly magazine as well as opportunity.  Here to tell us more is Jim LoBianco, Executive Director at StreetWise, Inc.

Can you tell me a bit about your background, prior to joining StreetWise?

I have been working around Chicago in the fields of social service and public service for almost twenty years. I started volunteering at a soup kitchen in the Uptown neighborhood while in high school. Since that time I’ve spent the majority of may professional career working in the areas of homelessness and poverty. I attended graduate school for Human Services and Counseling at DePaul University and for Public Policy Administration at Northwestern University.

After college I worked at Association House of Chicago and then the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois – Chicago. I then spent five years working as a patrolman for the Chicago Police Department. After leaving the police department I transitioned back into the world of social service by going to work for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley; first as Deputy Chief of Staff for Human Services and then as Commissioner in charge of the Office of Homeless Services. I left City government in April 2010 and spent the summer doing some consulting work until I joined the StreetWise team in late July. I officially took over the role of Executive Director at StreetWise on January 1, 2011.


What exactly is StreetWise and how does it work?

StreetWise, Inc. is a social enterprise designed to help the homeless and those at risk of homelessness out of poverty. The StreetWise model combines supportive social services, (focused on employment training and housing stability) with the opportunity for gainful self-employment, to assist vendors on the road to financial stability and self-sufficiency.

The StreetWise mission statement is: To assist Chicago area men and women, who are facing homelessness, achieve personal stability by providing a combination of supportive social services and immediate access to gainful employment.

Since its founding in 1992, approximately 10,000 vendors have benefited from the income, training and social service supports provided by StreetWise. In 2011, the agency expects to assist approximately 400 men and women in crisis.

Where does your passion for this cause originate?

Having spent most of my career working on issues of poverty and homelessness, I realized a long time ago that the single most effective way to combat these problems is employment. An earned income is the greatest resource a person can have while they try to achieve stability and self-sufficiency. There are so many people who are motivated to work but cannot find a job within the traditional systems. That is why I value creating entrepreneurial opportunities for motivated individuals. The past twenty years of StreetWise has shown that, given the chance, motivated men and women will take an entrepreneurial work model and use it to propel themselves on to greater success.

It seems as though StreetWise is helping people develop, at some level, entrepreneurial skills. Sort of the “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime” philosophy. Is this correct?

StreetWise is very much an entrepreneurial program. Taking a variation on the “fish” analogy, our slogan is, “a hand up not a handout.” The agency understands that often people are not looking to simply take charity; rather, they just need some support to get back on their feet.

StreetWise provides a flexible employment opportunity via the sales and marketing of StreetWise Magazine. As a publication, StreetWise Magazine is socially conscious and Chicago-centric. It raises awareness on the impact of poverty and homelessness in Chicago, across the nation, and around the world. StreetWise is among the largest “street papers” in the United States and serves as a model for street papers across North America. The editorial staff work hard to provide intriguing articles about today’s important issues as well as entertaining articles to enhance the reader’s daily life. By engaging the unemployed and underemployed as vendors, StreetWise is able to personalize the face of Chicago’s poor while, at the same time, providing them with an income opportunity.

The vendor workforce program makes the basic tools of entrepreneurial employment available to our vendors. The vendor is responsible for the success that he or she achieves. After completing vendor training and orientation the vendor receives 15 magazines at no cost. After that initial startup the vendors must purchase all future magazines, (vendors purchase the magazine from the agency for $.90 a copy and resell it for $2; thereby earning a profit of $1.10 per copy). The vendors are also responsible in finding a sales location. StreetWise will help vendors identify an initial location; however, they are strongly encouraged to scout out other locations that will increase their sales potential. Lastly, vendors are solely responsible for setting their hours and work schedule. So, although the agency provides the basic tools for employment, as well as ongoing support services, true success comes from each vendor’s entrepreneurial drive.

Are there any success stories you can share with us about those involved in StreetWise?

Yes, many.

StreetWise is meant to be “employment of the moment” not “employment for life.” To this end, StreetWise has provided thousands of men and women with the support and tools necessary to help lift themselves out of crisis. One shinning example is Mr. Gregory Pritchett. Greg currently serves as the StreetWise Director of Vendor Services. He has been an employee of the agency for ten years; however, Greg first came to us as a client and then a vendor.

Fifteen years ago Greg was living on the streets of Chicago, gripped by a drug addiction. This was despite the fact that Greg had a work history behind him and a college degree. As Greg tells his story there was a StreetWise vendor who would always encourage Greg to check out the opportunities at StreetWise and see if he couldn’t use them as way to turn his life around. After several years of ignoring this vendor’s advice Greg finally made the decision to walk through the StreetWise doors. He subsequently got himself clean and sober and began to sell the magazine. Within two years of being a vendor Greg was one of the top sellers. He had made enough to get himself an apartment and start a side business as a DJ. Greg proved to be such a hard worker that a previous executive director offered Greg a full time position with the agency in a role that would have him help other vendors succeed; a decade later Greg shares the house he owns with his wife and daughter. He also continues to operate his DJ business.

What entrepreneurial lessons have you learned in your time with streetwise?

The biggest lesson I have learned is making sure that StreetWise drives home the point that the vendor program is a true business and requires the same dedication as any other job. The men and women who treat the vendor program as a true job have launched themselves on to real personal success. Those who treat it as a side thing wash out of the program very quickly.

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