Stories of the Street

The Bridge provides voice, income for Memphis’ homeless community

By Jennifer Johnson Backer

On a frosty Monday afternoon in late March, Cynthia “Cee Cee” Crawford stood at the intersection of Park Avenue and Getwell Road waving copies of Memphis’ new street newspaper, The Bridge.

Former homeless woman Cynthia “Cee Cee” Crawford sells copies of The Bridge newspaper at Park Avenue and Getwell Road. The Bridge, which is published by Rhodes College, includes contributions from the homeless, and 100 percent of the sales go to the vendors. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Most of the cars didn’t stop, but Crawford was undaunted, despite the cold. Eventually, a car stopped and handed her a dollar in exchange for the paper. Crawford estimates she’s sold about seven papers since the paper hit the streets on March 21. She’s also given some away for free as a marketing tactic.

Crawford, who is both a writer and a certified vendor for The Bridge, has been homeless three separate times since 2001. She views selling the paper as a way to earn extra income, and to show the public the homeless still have much to offer society.

“These people that are out here aren’t just homeless or drunks or lazy people who don’t want to do things or pay their bills. These are viable people who are worth a second chance,” she said. “This paper to so many people will be that second chance to become a productive member of society and to feel like you are a part of something.”

Launched by students from Rhodes College, the paper’s founders aim to give the city’s homeless a voice and raise awareness about poverty.

Modeled after established street papers in cities like Nashville, New York and Washington, The Bridge’s content is provided by Memphis’ homeless community in collaboration with Rhodes College students.

The homeless contribute art, columns, stories and photographs for the paper. The paper’s staff is an army of student volunteers from Rhodes College, who serve as board members, editors, photographers, graphic designers, vendor trainers, copy editors and publicists.

“When we arrived here in Memphis, both of us had obviously seen homelessness in some regard where we came from, but we had never experienced it in the way we did in Memphis,” said The Bridge cofounder Evan Katz, who hails from Austin, Texas. “It seemed like a really interesting and useful thing we could do for the community.”

Fellow Bridge cofounder James Ekenstedt said the paper will provide Memphis’ homeless community with a source of income and an outlet to share their stories.

“We want to make sure this is a project that continues on far into the foreseeable future,” Katz said. “Making sure this paper can run over the summer and into future years is something we are really working on making happen.”

Homeless residents and those who have previously been homeless can sign up to become certified vendors for the paper. Each vendor will receive 20 free papers that they can sell for $1. They also can purchase additional papers for 25 cents, which can then be sold for a 75-cent profit. Vendors like Crawford keep all the profit. Homeless writers and contributors will be paid $10 to $25 for each article they contribute to the paper. Certified vendors are identified by badges around their necks identifying them as vendors for the paper.

As a vendor for the paper, Crawford hopes to earn $50 to $100 per month. She recently moved into a three-bedroom apartment near the airport on Elvis Presley Boulevard where the rent is based on a tenant’s income. While her four children can visit the apartment during the day, she needs to purchase bed frames and mattresses before they’ll be allowed to spend the night, and eventually move in with her full time from the foster care system.

“I’m hoping that extra $50 to $100 I earn can be used to purchase a mattress set or bed frames,” she said. “That’s what really encouraged me to become part of The Bridge.”

The reception by the homeless community has been very positive, says Paul Garner, organizing coordinator for Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality, a nonprofit organization sponsored by the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. The group’s members are people who are currently homeless or have experienced homelessness.

“This is something that people are able to take ownership over when they may not have a lot of other things that they feel they can own and control,” he said. “A lot of our members are looking at this as an opportunity to get the word out about issues that are important to them, while making a little bit of income.”

Former homeless woman Cynthia “Cee Cee” Crawford sells copies of The Bridge newspaper at Park and Getwell. The Bridge, which is published by Rhodes College, includes contributions by the homeless, and 100 percent of the sales go to the vendors. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Garner said he’s encouraged that The Bridge has been very open to suggestions and comments from the homeless community. The paper will hold monthly meetings where contributors can voice concerns, suggestions and discuss the paper’s progress.

“I think it’s structured to give them an equal voice and a seat at the decision-making table,” he said. “That’s where the paper will be kept honest.”

The Bridge has partnered with advocacy and nonprofit groups throughout Memphis to connect with the homeless community, including Door of Hope, Caritas Village, Hospitality Hub, First Presbyterian Church, the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center and Manna House.

The paper’s startup costs are currently funded by Rhodes College’s Kinney Program and private donors, but The Bridge is currently in the process of becoming a tax-exempt nonprofit organization.

Crawford learned about the paper through Door of Hope, a nonprofit organization that helps the homeless. She belongs to the organization’s writing group, which has partnered with The Bridge.

“Writing can be a very healing process,” she said. “It can help a lot with self esteem and to help each homeless person realize … they can get back into society and be acceptable to other people. It helps us realize I can win this battle against homelessness.”

She’s still working on getting back on her feet, but Crawford dreams of one day working with a nonprofit organization to give back to those who have helped her along the way.

“It hasn’t been the easiest way to go, but God has been there to help carry that load,” she said. “He’s been there caring for me every step of the way, even when I haven’t been able to care for myself.”