Year on The Bridge

Memphis street paper celebrates anniversary

By Bill Dries

In a tiny chapel at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, a group of three people listened intently last week as traffic whizzed by an open door onto Poplar Avenue on the other side of a wrought iron fence.

Jacques Green peruses The Bridge at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. Green is a new vendor of the publication, which is published monthly and sold on the streets by homeless Memphians.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The subject wasn’t any of the Ten Commandments, but what might be called the commandments of selling newspapers on the street. Don’t smoke or drink when wearing the newspaper’s badge. Don’t sell near the trolley stops or on Beale Street or by the Memphis Zoo. Read the newspaper to better sell the newspaper. Respect another vendor’s turf.

The rules are the result of a year’s experience by a group of Rhodes College students in publishing The Bridge, a monthly newspaper sold on the street by homeless Memphians. Its articles are written by those experiencing homelessness and by students writing about subjects connected to homelessness.

In an assembly hall by the chapel, also with stained glass and relics from the church’s long history, the papers themselves were being bundled and distributed to established carriers in the program.

For some it is the only shelter they may see for the week.

Linda Bozant has been selling The Bridge since last August at the Memphis Farmers Market, Levitt Shell and several festivals. Though the hard winter has cut her sales, she estimates that with two festivals a month, she can sell up to 450 a month at $1 each, and around 150 a month at different locations if there aren’t festivals.

She moved into transitional housing seven weeks ago.

“I like to get there early so I can watch traffic come in and see where the best place to stand is,” she said of her technique. “Sometimes I’m there at 10 o’clock that night. I’ll put in 12 to 13 hours. Like most things you get out of it what you put into it.”

One of her customers recently gave her a new desktop computer.

Evan Katz, a Rhodes College student who started The Bridge with other Rhodes students, says the content is about half firsthand accounts from the homeless – “articles on people’s impressions on homelessness from inside of it and a mixture of poetry, art and everything in between.”

Rhodes College student Brooks Lambs assists Cynthia “CC” Crawford with her order of copies of The Bridge newspaper.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The student staff of 30 writes on issues of homelessness, Katz said, “but also on issues of poverty, some of them aimed at the community on an educational level, but some of them also aimed at the homeless population that reads the paper on benefits in the community and better practices, tips on getting out of homelessness.”

The day of the training session was also the first day that Rhodes students were taking some of the new vendors out for practice runs at selling the paper, which the students emphasize has to be done a certain way.

“It’s tough when you first see the paper. You wonder how is this different than panhandling,” Katz said of run-ins some of the first vendors had, particularly with police, who arrested several. “If someone looks homeless and they are selling something, a lot of people think it’s panhandling and so do the police. … It’s definitely a hot topic. The police were wary of it in the beginning.”

But it is legal in areas that don’t specifically ban such street selling. And Katz said police are now supportive. In some cases, vendors who make more than $3,000 a year also have to have a city permit.

Katz said the average for vendors, who receive an initial number of papers for free, is $300 to $500 a month.

“I think that, almost unexpectedly, the bigger benefit that we’ve seen in 90 percent of the vendors that come through here and who do stick with the paper is a personality change,” he said. “Homelessness is so much caused by a mindset that you get into and is really the result in many cases of experiencing extreme loneliness and not having a good connection to the people around you. … Being able to be self-sufficient again, even if it’s just, in the beginning, $10 that you’re making a day – that’s the difference between spending those hard-earned $10 and having to either panhandle for them or accept a handout from a soup kitchen.”

One of Katz’s goals after a year of experience is to have the students and the vendors work closer together, not just on the newspaper but on other service projects.

“The whole point of The Bridge is we are trying to get rid of the barriers between the homeless and sheltered,” he said. “We really think there’s a problem with the soup kitchen mentality – the housed coming to serve the non-housed. … We’re hoping to do activities with both our student staff and our vendors to level the playing field.”