Philadelphia Homeless Man Wins International Journalism Award

PHOTO: Homeless man Jose Espinosa won an international journalism award for a profile he wrote in a street newspaper One Step Away.PlayCourtesy of Kevin Roberts
WATCH Homeless Man Wins Journalism Award

Jose Espinosa was in the financial services industry for almost 30 years. He dabbled in acting, sharing the screen with Glenn Close and Mariska Hargitay, and he is a tournament chess player. He attended Bronx Community College and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The fact that he just won an international journalism award might not sound far-fetched, except for the fact that he did it as a homeless man in Philadelphia.

"I'm not the typical homeless person," said Espinosa, 58. "I'm a very well-rounded individual."

Espinosa was recently awarded with the honor of Best Interview from the International Network of Street Papers for a profile he wrote of another homeless man.

That man was Matthew Saad Muhammad, the light-heavyweight boxing champion of the world from 1977 to 1980. Muhammad entered the shelter in 2010.

The article, called "Fighting Back," and was published in the July 2010 issue of One Step Away, a newspaper whose reporting staff and editorial board is made up almost entirely of homeless people. The paper is published by RHD Ridge Center, Philadelphia's largest homeless shelter.

"It's an amazing thing in the way that it gives people the tools to rebuild themselves through creativity and self-expression," said Kevin Roberts, the communications manager for RHD and the editor of the newspaper. "We've really watched people blossom and get their feet under them again."

Roberts traveled to Scotland, where the International Network of Street Papers is based, to accept the award.

"Most of the street newspapers have staffs that have reporters that do this or they work with freelance writers," Roberts said. "We're very, very rare in that we have homeless folks that write with us."

Roberts said that makes the work really personal, especially in Espinosa's case.

"There's no doubt in my mind that it absolutely made the piece that Matthew was talking to a fellow homeless person in the shelter with him," Roberts said. "That made it so much more striking."

Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., Espinosa was working in finance when his company changed hands and he lost his job. He was caring for his ill mother in Philadelphia when he lost his home in New York and his financial situation fell apart.

His mother passed away in 2005 and Espinosa found himself homeless.

"I went from having two places to live to no place to live," Espinosa said. "There were times I thought it was over. You're in the shelter. Things happen to you and you ask yourself, 'Why me?' I was shocked."

When the shelter began the paper about 18 months ago, Espinosa was approached by a director to see if he might be interested in participating. Espinosa, who describes himself as "verbose," jumped on the opportunity and began with small stories.

Oftentimes, he would have to hand-write his pieces and wait until he got to the shelter to type them up on a computer.

About six months into his participation, Espinosa found a story he was passionate about with Muhammad.

"We struck up a friendship and, believe me, it wasn't easy," Espinosa said. "Here's a man who was on top and now he's on the bottom, so his trustworthiness of people was on the lowest end."

After convincing Muhammad to do the story, Espinosa pitched it to his editors, who told him to do it. After two lengthy interviews, he had his story.

The newspaper vendors are also members of the homeless community. Vendors buy the papers for 25 cents and then sell them for a donation of at least $1.

"The article got published and it had far-reaching capabilities. It went to Boston, San Francisco, Australia," Espinosa said.

A year later, at one of the paper's twice-monthly meetings, Roberts announced that Espinosa had won an award for his profile.

"I was floored," Espinosa said. "I was shocked that the story did have legs and it took off. I am honored."

Roberts said there has consistently been a great deal of interest in the project because people were eager to tell their stories and have their voices heard. He said that most of the original writers have left the shelter and been able to find housing and employment.

"We found there were a lot of intelligent people that were down, damaged, broken for one reason or another. It's amazing to see them latch onto this thing as a way to tell their story," Espinosa said.

One of the great debates in launching the paper was what to call it. Roberts was surprised that the decision took a couple hours as people argued over the best name.

"We are closer to recovery than people think, and people are closer to each other's stations than they realize," Roberts said, which is why One Step Away was finally chosen.

"Everyone is one step away," Espinosa said.

Though Espinosa is now positive and hopeful about his future, he said there were definitely days that were much more like a "pity party."

"Every passing Christmas and New Year's, you're thinking, 'My God, it's got to be better for next year,'" Espinosa said.

He has not received any job offers yet, but is hopeful and still looking for employment. He would love to work as a writer or entertainer, but is open to all opportunities.

"I hope to get a new lease on life," Espinosa said. "It might inspire someone else to do something, to show you it's not too late in life. Don't give up hope."

Roberts said that Muhammad, the subject of the profile, got a powerful response from telling his story and is now the spokesman for RHD's Knock Out Homelessness campaign. He has been able to leave the shelter and is now an activist for homeless issues.

"Jose is still kind of searching for his ending, which I'm hoping will be equally wonderful," said Roberts.