Since March, local college students have published a monthly newspaper for the homeless to sell. With winter's arrival, it's news that sustains.
It’s easy to find Andre Ervin. He’s in the same spot nearly every day, waving to cars beside the off-ramp at Sam Cooper Boulevard and Highland. He’s 29, homeless, but he’s not begging. He’s selling.
He’s officially what’s called a “vendor,” because for a buck, he’ll hand you a newspaper called The Bridge.
“I’ve been selling The Bridge for probably about three months,” he says. “It’s been okay, ‘cause I can be able to get something to eat. It’s been taking care of me, I’m gonna be honest.”
Since last March, when the first issue went to press, The Bridge has taken care of many people. It’s an independent not-for-profit newspaper created so that the homeless can sell it.
At 16 pages, The Bridge resembles a college newspaper. But that’s partly because it’s made by a volunteer group of about 45 Rhodes College students in their free time.
The president and co-executive director of The Bridge, James Ekenstedt, is a 20-year-old Urban Studies major at Rhodes. He said the idea was inspired by a street newspaper in Nashville, though the concept exists in cities across the country. The North American Street Newspaper Association lists more than 20 member papers in the United States.
Each new vendor gets their first 20 papers for free, Ekenstedt says.
“After that, they buy every issue for a quarter and sell every issue for a dollar, but tips are accepted, you just can’t ask for tips,” he says. “So simultaneously it serves as a voice for their community and helps them get some income.”
The paper has made a big difference to people like Linda Bozant. A few years back, she invested her life savings in a college degree at Ole Miss, thinking she’d earn it back with a better job. Then one day, she got sick. She couldn’t walk to class, or remember her studies. She came to Memphis for treatment. But she didn’t have insurance.
“And even when it came up here it took the doctors at The Med over a year to figure out it was Multiple Sclerosis,” she said. “And so, in the meantime, I lost my home, I lost my furniture, I lost everything.”
Bozant says that her illness prevents her from getting a steady job, but selling The Bridge lets her work when her body is up to it. Last spring and summer, she hawked papers at Levitt Shell concerts, at farmers’ markets, and street festivals. She’s good at it. She’s not shy and has a warm smile. She’s also not a drug addict or a single mom. Which is why she can’t get long-term housing. She’s just chronically ill. She hasn’t had a real home in two years.
“It’s so nice to get a little independence and self-respect, and I do that with The Bridge,” she says. “And I feel normal again, in a way, because I’m working again and I’ve always worked and paid my own way. So I like that about The Bridge. And it’s helping my self-confidence, too.”
The newspaper features articles and poems, mostly about life on the streets. Some are written by students. Others by the homeless themselves, who get a little money for their contributions.
Dolores Washington published an excerpt from her autobiography Journey II: One Woman’s True Account of Homelessness. She says the newspaper helps bridge the perception gap between a life of comfort – of home and family – and a life that most people misunderstand, or don’t want to imagine.
“They don’t understand the toughness, the loneliness of it, the rejection,” she says. “How people reject you, how people see you. It could be them.”
For vendors of The Bridge, winter brings a double challenge. There are fewer public events where papers can be sold to crowds. Yet the need for money --for shelter-- is a matter of survival.
Linda Bozant says she anticipates a greater number of vendors in the future.
“I’ve seen more Baby Boomers – people my age – coming to the shelters,” she says. “It’s really scary. We’re falling through the cracks really bad.”
Five thousand copies of the December issue hit the streets this month, a thousand more than last month. And for vendors like Andre Ervin and Linda Bozant, the only question is: Can they sell enough of them?