The last Wednesday of the month may not mean much to the average person. For 51 ambitious homeless people in Nashville, though, it means they’ll soon be able to restock their toiletries, refill their medicine bottles, and maybe even rent a hotel room for the cold nights ahead.
These 51 individuals are vendors of the Nashville Contributor, a street newspaper.
They are men and women of all different races, all trying to better themselves. In a small room in the back of Downtown Presbyterian Church, they discuss last month’s sales and the contents of this month’s issue.
When the meeting is over all the vendors rush up to buy papers. Tom Wills, one of the directors, quickly senses the chaos and orders them to line up in a civilized manner.
The Contributor is one of 27 street newspapers in the nation, but the only one in Nashville.
“Street Newspaper” is a term for a newspaper that focuses on the issues surrounding homelessness and poverty and is sold by homeless and formerly homeless individuals on the street as an alternative to panhandling.
The Contributor strives to provide a diversity of perspectives and information on homelessness. It highlights the stories of homeless and formerly homeless contributors, while also providing vendors with a source of income.
“Having something to wake up for everyday is empowering for those who choose to be vendors. And in turn, those who buy the paper get educated and see the vendors–who are homeless–as more than just a stereotype,” Wills said.
Vendors of The Contributor buy the papers for a quarter each, then resell them for a dollar. They make an average income of $2.00 a paper with tips.
Inside November’s edition of The Contributor there were articles focusing on what a “home” is, as well as several articles concerning the upcoming cold weather. Each month, the paper sports two pages dedicated to poetry.
The Contributor operates with a volunteer staff, and relies on individual donations to stay in production. “We’ve basically been operating a $3,000 organization on a $1,000 budget,” explained Wills.
The Downtown Presbyterian Church donates an office and meeting space for the newspaper.
“We’ve got a lot of people to thank,” Wills said.
According to the directors and two veteran vendors, when the publication was founded two years ago, no one thought it was going to last more than three months.
Tasha French, director and graphic designer for The Contributor, was doing design work for another publication at the time. But she knew of other street newspapers and realized Nashville needed one.
“I sheltered the idea for a while but then realized I had the contacts and resources and got together with some people to see if we could really make this happen,” she said.
For a while, French said, they paid for printing themselves.
“We talked to the homeless and told them about it. We started with, like, two vendors and didn’t pick up more until after about a year,” French said.
To make the paper thrive, Wills explained, the directors needed to convince three communities: the faith/activist community, which was supportive but nervous; the business community, which needed to be educated and was concerned about a new wave of pan handlers; and, of course, the homeless themselves. The latter were skeptical of the idea that they could actually sell papers to earn money.
“Not even the homeless had hope for it,” admitted Ray Ponce De Leon, who has been writing for The Contributor since the first issue, “It was a bit rough because we would lose people because they would get so frustrated.”
But, the organization has grown.
“The first year we sold about 1,000 papers a month and now we’re at about 6,000 a month. This month we printed 7,000 papers,” reported French.
As of November, the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA) agreed to be the fiscal sponsor for The Contributor as the paper enters into the final stages of applying for its 501(c)3 tax-deductible status, which will make it an official nonprofit organization.
Tom Wills and the rest of The Contributor staff have many other goals for the publication. Among them are to distribute 50,000 papers this year.
“If we can do that, it means we would have put (an estimated) $100,000 in the pockets of our vendors,” said Wills.
Their biggest long-term goal is to be able to hire staff that can devote time to make sure the paper gets laid out and articles organized. Also, by May, staff hopes to increase publication of The Contributor to twice per month.
“We’ve been running on a shoestring, but our goal is to make this a sustainable operation,” said Wills.