'Street Papers' Sold By Homeless Are Thriving

fromWPLN

Homeless newspapers around the country have grown by double digits over the past few years, even while most printed publications struggle to keep their paying customers. The so-called street papers create jobs for homeless people, who buy the papers at cost and sell them for a dollar. The model is simple, but it works. And it's caught fire in places like Nashville. The publication's explosive growth raises questions about sustainability of the street paper business model — like what happens when the vendors are making so much money they're no longer homeless?

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

At a time when traditional newspapers are struggling to hold on to paying customers, street papers are thriving. They benefit the homeless, who sell them as an alternative to panhandling. Around the country, circulation is up an average of 36 percent this year. And street papers in Nashville and L.A. have quadrupled their sales.

As Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports, that success has forced some readers to rethink their support.

BLAKE FARMER: There's nothing fancy about the street paper model. Homeless people buy them at cost and sell them for a cover price, usually a dollar. In Nashville, vendors like Kurt Wynans(ph) stand in silence and let the paper called The Contributor sell itself.

Mr. KURT WYNANS: Merry Christmas, God bless.

Unidentified Woman #1: You, too.

FARMER: Four hundred salesmen, some newly homeless, others with more chronic problems, have fanned out across downtown. Some even ride buses to nearby suburbs where there's less competition. The Contributor sold out of the November issue, achieving the largest single month circulation in the country by moving 75,000 papers.

Ms. TASHA FRENCH (Founder, The Contributor): I don't think we're the best street paper. I mean, we're working on our content. I don't think our content's the best. I don't think we have the best staff of any other paper. So I don't know why our circulation is so high.

FARMER: Tasha French founded the paper and calls its trajectory mind-boggling, especially considering where it started three years ago. Her volunteer who trains the vendors used to warn them, this job won't get you off the streets.

Ms. FRENCH: And I kind of hated the phrase at the time, but I kind of agreed with him. You're not going to make enough money with this alone to get off the streets and he's long since stopped saying that.

FARMER: Collectively, vendors will make nearly a million dollars this year, allowing some to find housing. The top performers have done more than put a roof over their heads. Working dawn to dusk, Cory Paul(ph) has sold 1,600 papers a month, netting close to $3,000 with tips.

Mr. CORY PAUL: I'm, like, pretty decent at it.

FARMER: Dressed in jeans, sunglasses and a bright yellow jacket, Paul no longer looks the part of the pill-popping drunk he was not long ago.

Mr. PAUL: I started making money, you know, I started buying some clothes and keeping shaved.

FARMER: Paul says he has regulars who stop by once or twice a week, like Mary Jane.

Mr. PAUL: She asked me if I was actually homeless. And I said, well, I was until I started doing this and that got me off the streets. And now she buys more papers than she was.

FARMER: Many customers are compelled by people helping themselves instead of asking for a handout. They don't seem to care about the homeless themed crossword puzzles or the articles on poverty submitted by advocates and the homeless themselves.

Have you read the paper?

Unidentified Woman #2: No. I have not.

Unidentified Man: I've read a few of the articles.

Ms. BRIDGET DONELLE: I don't always read it, but I have read it.

FARMER: That last voice is Bridget Donelle(ph), who buys multiple copies of the same issue. But goodwill has its limits for some. One woman emailed The Contributor last month saying she'd no longer buy the paper because her regular saleswoman got a French manicure. I don't feel sorry for them if they can afford luxuries I can't, she wrote.

Michael Crowder(ph) has complained to.

Mr. MICHAEL CROWDER: I have to scratch my head and wonder, how is a homeless person selling newspapers on the corner and making more money than me?

FARMER: Crowder lives on disability and says he'll continue to buy the paper for now. But if street paper vendors are no longer homeless and in need, they need to move on.

Mr. TIM HARRIS (Founder, Spare Change): We are realists on this question.

FARMER: Tim Harris started a street paper in Boston in the early '90s and another in Seattle, which has consistently held the highest circulation in the U.S. He says for some, selling the paper is a temporary bridge to something better.

Mr. HARRIS: There are also those who, for various reasons, this is the best gig that they're going to get.

FARMER: Some have felony convictions or lack a high school diploma. Those vendors will be around a while. And since that can be turn off, Harris says street papers have to become less charity-like and more businesslike, attracting customers based on the quality of their content and not just goodwill.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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