Citizen Celeste

One of the hippest magazines in Britain is The Big Issue. It mixes news features with coverage of sport and the arts, and reviews of local events. It has different editions in the capital cities of England and Scotland.

But you can't buy it in any store or newsstand. If you want it, you have to go into the street and buy it from a homeless person.

All vendors of The Big Issue are homeless. That's why it was set up in the first place. The idea was that homeless people would have something to sell, rather than just beg. This, it was hoped, would help them get back on their feet and somewhere permanent to live.

Here in Phoenix, the ill-fated Grapevine seemed to have the same idea. But it didn't work, and the reason is clear. The Big Issue was a publication that people wanted, whether they felt strongly about homelessness or not.

The Grapevine was a shoddily produced collection of badly written, right-wing rants. The only reason for buying it was to do a homeless person a favor. Many people chose just to give them a dollar and forget about the paper, rather than buy the paper and have a percentage go to the publisher.

So, when the city decided to harass Grapevine vendors and drive them off the streets, the paper folded. If something like that happened to The Big Issue in London or Edinburgh, public outcry would be huge--not because people would be so outraged about persecution of the homeless, but because they'd miss the paper. Nobody missed the Grapevine. Although its publisher is in the process of suing the city, nobody really cares.

Now a new publication has appeared with a similar purpose and a different approach. The paper is called True Liberty, and its second issue is just about to appear. Its content is far closer to that of The Big Issue--which its director cites as an influence--than that of the Grapevine. The writing is breezy and engaging, the content a mix of news, opinion, interviews, music and arts. Much of the writing and artwork is by homeless people. Although far better produced and written than the Grapevine, it lacks the sophistication of The Big Issue. But it's still an interesting paper, one you might buy out of interest rather than social responsibility.

The Big Issue has millions of dollars behind it. It's published by A. John Bird, a business tycoon. The person behind True Liberty is a kid who's starting her final year at Dobson High School.

Celeste Lopez is a shy powerhouse. She isn't an imposing figure, until she starts to talk. She starts quietly and slowly, but gets louder and faster until she seems to generate enough energy to cause a problem for APS.

She first came to the attention of New Times when she gave Joe Arpaio some heat at a student press conference. Then, having decided to write about Arpaio for her school newspaper, she called up NT's Tony Ortega and asked him to hand over his list of contacts. When a bemused Ortega declined, she used his articles as a reference for her own.

Lopez is that rarity--a teenager who isn't self-obsessed. She appears completely absorbed by the world around her rather than by herself. Although she'll talk your ear off if you give her a chance, she seldom uses the words I or me. She'll tell you--at length--what she thinks or what she's doing, but she constantly downplays her own importance.

She has been interested in social action for as long as she can remember. It runs in the family. Her father, Al, used to take her to homeless shelters when she was 6 years old.

"I got the idea for True Liberty partially from the Grapevine, but also from a paper in Washington," Lopez says. "I really liked the philosophy, where the homeless do the writing and the artwork. And it's also a social-action kind of a thing, trying to get things changed, trying to change how people view the homeless."

So she decided to try doing the same.
"I did a lot of research on the laws around here. Because of the Grapevine, a lot of laws were created to try to stop these kind of publications." Authorities hectored Grapevine vendors for standing on the median and selling to passing drivers. Lopez decided that her vendors would only sell to pedestrians on the streets of Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa.

"Me and some of my friends from school were all on the school newspaper, and we decided to put this together."

She contacted the Artists' Attic, a program focused on creative activity on the streets, which provided her with some people willing to write and draw. Danny Robinson, an artist and one of the program's organizers, says the paper's impact on his artists was immediate. "We never had an outlet," Robinson says. "We never got to the point of being public. Now, everybody's like, 'I can get an article published? Maybe if I say something, somebody'll hear it!'"

Although the paper is undoubtedly Lopez's creation, she doesn't see it that way. She regards it as a collective. "We all do everything," she says. "We all write, we all take pictures."

But it's her enthusiasm that fuels the paper and gives it direction. The people she works with are capable of doing what needs to be done to keep it going--but Lopez is the one who knows what needs to be done. So she's either being modest or naive in discounting her own importance when I ask about the paper's future.

She plans to leave Arizona when she finishes high school. Does she think the paper can carry on without her? "Oh, yeah. They [homeless people] do the material, and we're just putting it together, you know, laying it out and stuff like that."

True Liberty is an interesting read, but the quality is mixed. Some of the articles are idealistic homilies on the intrinsic worth of all human beings. There's an excellent poem titled "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Bed."

The tub-thumping, proselytizing tone of the first issue works in setting the paper's agenda. But where can it go from there? Although Lopez declares no political interest, even her casual comments suggest otherwise. "We're just trying to help people understand each other, and help people who don't otherwise have a voice in the community have a place where they can speak. It's not a matter of a political agenda or anything."

What agenda is more political than one that aims to give representation to those who don't have it? It's easy to criticize Lopez's naivete, and her paper undoubtedly has its weaknesses. But it's not produced by a team of professional journalists, but by an untrained kid--and so far her product is superior to anything the Grapevine produced.

And the Grapevine has returned, now calling itself Electric Grapevine. It promises a new, aggressive attitude, and threatens to sue any city that tries to suppress it. But its quality will have to improve for it to stand beside True Liberty.

Providing the homeless with a product to sell may ease their situation by giving them some money, but it doesn't put a roof over their heads. Recognizing this, Lopez wants to take practical steps toward a lasting solution. "What I'd really like to do is find an inexpensive house, and have all the vendors put their money together and rent it. If there's money left over, we can help them get a savings account so they can get out of this cycle that they're in. And if anybody reading this wants to help us out, that'd be really cool."

Celeste Lopez can be reached at: True Liberty, P.O. Box 8074, Chandler, AZ 85246-8074. Phone: 1-602-456-1076.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: [email protected]

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Barry Graham