Street newspapers on the rise

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In a state like Florida, where the homeless population exceeded 56,000 in 2011, Bill Sharpe wondered why people seemed to have so much animosity toward their homeless neighbors. So the publisher of the South Tampa Community News wrote an editorial on the topic. In response, a reader sent him a link to The Contributor, a street paper in Nashville, Tenn., and Sharpe said he liked what he saw.

According to the International Network of Street Papers, there are 118 street newspapers published in 40 countries across six continents. The North American Street Newspaper Association alone has 33 member papers and 12 associate member papers. And these numbers are only increasing.

For the most part, street papers cover city news related to homeless issues and people. They are sold, and even sometimes written, by people who are, have been, or are in danger of becoming homeless. Homeless vendors buy the papers from the publisher at a low price, and then sell them on the streets for a profit. This is exactly what Sharpe decided to do after the Tampa City Council passed a law against panhandling. “I just felt it was the right thing to do and that I had the ability to do it,” he said in an email interview.

Launched in December, the Tampa Epoch proved to be profitable for both Sharpe and the homeless vendors within the first month of publishing, according to an article on Tampa Bay Online. “We probably recruited the most vendors ever in such a short time with over 300 in 60 days,” Sharpe told inVocus.

Thrive Detroit, a street paper started by Delphia Simmons in November, is experiencing similar success. Simmons said she was inspired to start the paper because of her work with the Coalition On Temporary Shelter in Detroit. Since her background is in business, she enlisted help from local journalists, as well as the city’s chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. “We work to focus on items of interest to the general community while bringing awareness regarding needs in the community,” she said in an email interview.

So far, Thrive Detroit has been successful in bringing awareness about homelessness to the city, and sales of the paper are on the rise. “The vendors (some are homeless, some are vulnerably housed) have found that sales are increasing each issue and they appreciate the opportunity to make the extra cash,” she said.

But not every part of launching a street paper has been easy. “The biggest hurdle is to get the vendors that have been out of mainstream living to regain the need for a schedule and to obtain the discipline to abide by it,” Sharpe said.

Thrive Detroit has had about the same number of vendors selling the paper on average, but they are often irregular sellers, noted Simmons. “We have some who sell consistently, but the number who sell inconsistently is greater,” she said. “It averages out to about the same but building consistency is important to the model that we want to build.”

Other issues include community acceptance. While some members of Tampa’s law enforcement have reacted positively toward homeless vendors, others “have been threatening,” Sharpe noted. And he’s seen mixed reactions from city officials, as well. “Most of the elected officials seem to either approve of or have a wait and see attitude about the effort, except for the mayor,” he said. “He has called for people to not buy advertising in our paper.”

But for both Sharpe and Simmons, starting street papers has been a labor of love. Many of Tampa Epoch’s homeless vendors are starting savings accounts and setting goals for the future, Sharpe noted. “The best thing has been to watch many forgotten people regain a sense of purpose and of self esteem.”

Meanwhile, Simmons is looking to the future for Thrive Detroit. “It is much more time intensive than I anticipated but I love it,” she said.

— Julia Russell


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