Aspiring writer-producer Rob Federighi was visiting Chicago three years ago when he bought a newspaper from a StreetWise vendor and walked away wondering what the man’s story was. Federighi, a commercial real estate broker who grew up in the western suburbs, was living in Los Angeles at the time, hustling his sitcom scripts and game show concepts. As he mused about the vendor (was he from Chicago? did he have a family?), inspiration struck. Soon afterward he pitched the idea of a documentary to the StreetWise organization, a nonprofit that provides entrepreneurial gigs for people who might otherwise be jobless and homeless. What Federighi had in mind was a film “where we just tell the stories of who these people are.” It wouldn’t be so much about the organization, he told them. “But people will learn about StreetWise through the stories of the vendors.” They loved it right away, he says. All he had to do was finance and film it.

StreetWise: The Movie wrapped a few weeks ago. “It’s low budget—$25 or $30 thousand,” Federighi says. “I’ve essentially been paying all of it out of my pocket, and I’m not paying myself anything.” He’s looking to recover some of the costs through a benefit premiere at the Park West this weekend.

It’s powerful stuff. Not because of artful filming: what you get is mostly talking-head video, sometimes saddled with background music that ought to be ditched. And not because of hard-hitting reporting on the organization, which has had some troubled times: the piece is an unabashed promo. There’s no serious analysis of the root causes of poverty either; Federighi says he didn’t want to make another “grim” film about homelessness. He thinks StreetWise offers one solution to the problem, and that’s what he wanted to show. The power is where he knew it would be—in the vendors and their stories.

Federighi interviewed about 30 people before choosing the 6 he filmed. Stability with the organization was the first requirement. “Vendors come and go; we needed people we could follow over a period of time,” he says. He also wanted a range of situations, and he got them: in the video Everett Atkins is selling StreetWise while trying his hand at the catering business, Tyrone Moore dreams of driving a truck but first needs to learn how to read, and Don Nelson says he struggles to maintain the smile people expect and has thought carefully about his answer to their usual “How ya doin?” “I like to say ‘Hangin’ in,'” he says. “It covers both sides.”

The film opens with a shot of its lone woman vendor, Linda Fisher, in her wheelchair, before dawn, waiting for the 80 bus. StreetWise vendors pick up their inventory at the organization’s West Lake Street office, paying 35 cents each for the papers, which they sell for $1. Linda’s corner is Randolph and Michigan, and she’s there every day for the morning rush hour, 6 to 9 AM. She also helps out in the StreetWise office, goes to school at night, and cares for her five-year-old daughter, Joy. Afflicted with scleroderma and rheumatoid arthritis, she’s a single mom who had a foot amputated at 14 and aspires now to a good job and a good education for the child she says she is lucky to raise. “Selling StreetWise helps you realize the world doesn’t revolve around you,” she says. “No one owes you anything.” The movie’s best moments capture Linda and (the perfectly named) Joy at a park; the child’s voice, in this context, is indelible.

StreetWise has had its own trials. It was founded in 1992, when the homeless were more visible on Chicago’s streets, by lawyer and real estate developer Judd Lofchie. Inspired by two other papers—London’s The Big Issue and New York’s Street News, which is now defunct—Lofchie recruited a former Tribune employee, Casey Covganka, to join him, and says he spent half of what was then his life’s savings on getting it going. Initial growth was rapid, and Lofchie’s insistence that the organization buy its building (at 13th and Michigan) turned out to be a financial bonanza when it was sold. By 2001 StreetWise had an annual budget of $900,000, 300 vendors selling 25,000 copies weekly, and some gritty investigative reporting. But there were also problems. Lofchie, who’d found himself at odds with other board members, had left, and a dispute between the executive director (described as a great fund-raiser) and the small staff of liberal journalists who wanted the paper to be a political force, erupted into the dailies. The staff said that the director was guilty of mismanagement and called for his ouster; he stayed for several more years, but four of them wound up losing their jobs. Remaining staff threatened a strike, donations fell, and the paper’s never entirely recovered.

These days StreetWise has 190 vendors and distributes fewer than 15,000 copies of a 12-page publication mostly written by its editor, Suzanne Hanney, and any volunteers she can recruit. Hanney, a Medill graduate who’s been at the paper for 12 years, puts it out with the help of a production manager and usually just one intern; the staff includes a distribution manager, a social worker, an office manager, an administrative assistant, a part-time janitor, and the current executive director, Deneen Weinz. Hanney says the paper’s readership demographic “is the best in the city.” The vendors, 14 percent of whom are currently homeless, have a customer base of lakefront liberals. Hanney says typical recent content includes a story about the lead content of lipstick, a food column that mentions Charlie Trotter’s, and vendor profiles. The paper’s past was a necessary evolution, she says. “We had to go through that to get where we are now ...on point again, mindful of our niche, knowing that we are about living in Chicago cheaper and about making opportunities for more people.” The annual budget is about $500,000; board chair Bruce Crane says that, like many nonprofits, StreetWise is struggling in an era of decreased federal funding for social services and greater competition for foundation grants. Lofchie, who now lives and works in Aurora, thinks a boost in ad sales and a great grant writer would help; he’s been asked to rejoin the board and says he will do so soon.

As for Federighi’s inspiration: it was original to him but not totally original. Bill Glader and Magdalena Rodriguez’s 30-minute documentary, Inside “StreetWise”, won a Chicago Emmy in 1997. Federighi says that when he learned about that film he chose not to view it. Between the Friday premiere of StreetWise: The Movie and its airing on WTTW January 22 at 10 PM, StreetWise vendors will sell the DVD for $5. Federighi says the details haven’t been settled yet, but he thinks that after a cut for production costs and for StreetWise, the vendors will pocket $2 or $3 a copy.v