Stephanie Bermudez, 13, had a secret.

She held it so tightly that none of her friends at the Russell H. Conwell Middle Magnet School knew it and only a few teachers knew it.

Stephanie feared people knowing that for the last four months she had been going home to a shelter in North Philadelphia, where she shared a small room with her mother, Rosa, and 9-year-old sister, Amanda.

It was a source of intense embarrassment for the teenager, who has a disability and already feels the glare of scrutiny at school. Legally blind since birth, the straight-A student has to use a telescope in class to see the blackboard. "I feel the eyes on me," she said.

Stephanie had every intention of keeping the truth locked away, until she was asked before Thanksgiving to share her experience about living in a shelter in writing.

No way, thought Stephanie.

It was self-protection. If the kids at school found out, what would happen?

But the offer to share her thoughts on homelessness was part of a bigger project that began to intrigue Stephanie as much as it terrified her.

The Philadelphia nonprofit that operates the shelter, Resources for Human Development, was starting a monthly newspaper. It would join the 19 "street newspapers" published in other U.S. cities and sold by either poor or homeless vendors, according to the North American Street Newspaper Association.

At the RHD shelters, residents would write the copy, and the nonprofit would cover the $2,200 cost of having it published. Shelter residents, in turn, would sell the paper for a dollar and keep 75 cents from each sale.

In December, meetings were held to plan the paper, which would involve people at the Woodstock Family Center, the Ridge Center, and Womanspace Philadelphia.

The writer in Stephanie was drawn to the project.

"I stopped thinking about what people might think and started thinking about the positives that might come out of it," Stephanie said.

She sat down at a computer at the Woodstock shelter and wrote a column in a half-hour.

The piece ends with this thought:

"We are all one step away . . . to getting a home. To losing a home. To rebuilding our lives. To destroying our lives. To retrieving our families. To losing our families.

"You could be us. We could be you. It's just One Step Away . . ."

When she saw a proof of the paper with her column and two poems, she panicked. "I regretted my decision," she said.

But it was too late. Her story was out - and so were the tales of nine other men, women, and children.

One of the writers was an out-of-work plumber struggling with depression, another a former cook at a deli. One was a barber who had done time in jail and now was trying to rebuild his life.

"It's not a cry for help. It's not a cry of desperation," Stephanie says of the newspaper. "It's us trying to influence people about what our lives are all about."

The first edition of the "One Step Away" newspaper hit the streets Dec. 17. Homeless contributors so far have sold about 2,000 copies from an initial pressrun of 10,000. The next edition will come out in January.

Stephanie's mother bought 120 copies.

Three years ago, Rosa, 49, was working as a motel housekeeper in Florida when, she said, her life fell apart "like a bomb exploded."

She lost her job, separated from her husband, and came down with a debilitating ailment that brought on severe pain and tremors.

She moved to Philadelphia, where she had family. She and her girls stayed with relatives before renting part of a house in Northeast Philadelphia. That property, however, went into foreclosure, and in August Rosa had no place to go.

Stephanie's dark eyes well up when she recalls her family sitting with their bags in the city's intake center for homeless families.

The family spent a few nights at a noisy, crowded shelter at 13th and Arch Streets before being placed at the Woodstock center in North Philadelphia.

The family center, in a former nursing home, did not match Stephanie's fears of a shelter.

Her family had its own room, with three beds lined up "like Goldilocks," she said. There was a computer room and library, bright halls, and a cafeteria where everyone ate together.

"A shelter is not demeaning to anyone," Stephanie said. "It's not something that defines who you are."

She believed that - but would her friends at school?

The week before Christmas, Stephanie walked into the office of Edward Hoffman, principal of her Kensington school.

She recounted the scene with the precision of the writer she is:

"Mr. Hoffman, I need a donation."

"For what?"

"For a newspaper."

"I already have one," Hoffman said.

"I'm in the newspaper," Stephanie told him, tossing a copy on his desk.

"How much?"

"A dollar."

"You know, I'm broke."

He gave her a dollar and began flipping through the pages. He looked up.

"Did you eat yet?"

"No."

"Go eat and come back later."

Hoffman said in an interview that he had run into the next room to show his staff.

"I read her poems. I could have cried," Hoffman said.

When Stephanie returned to his office, he told her to bring more copies to school. "I need to share this with the faculty," he told her. "It's so inspiring what you're doing."

She brought in 80 copies the next day. At the next faculty meeting, Hoffman asked everyone to read what Stephanie had written.

Stephanie earned $118 from selling the papers. Some teachers gave more than a dollar. One included a gift card for $50. A math teacher patted her on the back, smiled, and said, "I'm so proud of you."

Word spread around school. Classmates began passing around the paper with Stephanie's photograph. "They were really happy for me - but sad about the situation," Stephanie said.

One close friend told her, "You've been through so much."

In the library at the Woodstock center, Stephanie's mother listened as her daughter recounted the reaction at school. Rosa used to worry about Stephanie. She sensed she was depressed about the move to the shelter.

And now this.

"I'm glad her voice has come out," Rosa said. "It's helped her. It's helped me."

Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com.