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Plans for homeless newspaper could circumvent panhandling ban

TAMPA - Tampa's panhandling ban takes effect today, but the publisher of a community newspaper has a plan to give the homeless a legal way to continue making money on the city's street corners. Bill Sharpe, publisher of the South Tampa Community News, plans to start publishing Tampa Epoch, a monthly newspaper about the homeless, in mid November. The homeless would sell the papers on street corners for $1. The new city ordinance bans solicitations on city roads except on Sundays but exempts those selling newspapers. Tampa City Councilman Frank Reddick said the homeless newspaper would circumvent the ordinance's intent. But assuming the Tampa Epoch meets the legal description of a newspaper, Reddick said, it would meet the ordinance's legal description and he would have no problem with Sharpe's plan.
Councilwoman Yvonne Capin said she likes the idea. "They're not panhandling," she said. "They are selling a newspaper. If the public decides to purchase a newspaper, I don't see where that's a loophole. We can't ban any newspaper sales because then we'd have to ban all newspaper sales. "It may keep them from being homeless. They may be able to get some income to get some shelter." Councilman Mike Suarez said he thought all along that the council needed to pass a total panhandling ban to keep streets safe and to focus on programs to assist the homeless. Now, he said, council members have to accept the wording of the ordinance they approved. "I didn't see anyone doing this this quickly," Suarez said of the newspaper. "This is something we may have to live with. "I think that it's not thumbing its nose at the law. It's entrepreneurial." The monthly newspaper would be tabloid size and have four sections totaling about 16 pages, Sharpe said. He said the paper would include stories about agencies that offer medical and food services for the homeless. It also would have stories and profiles about the homeless, people who are near homeless and people who have been homeless. A goal is to educate the community about what it is like to be homeless in Tampa, Sharpe said. Homeless people would write poetry and draw for the newspaper. Some South Tampa Community News staffers also would help produce content, along with freelancers and volunteers, he said. "We want to be a credible newspaper," Sharpe said. Sharpe would give homeless salesmen T-shirts and badges to identify them on the streets as they hawk the newspapers. The business plan calls for the vendors to get the first 25 newspapers free. Once they sell those papers and earn their first $25, they would buy more papers from Sharpe for a quarter each. Selling those papers for a dollar would bring the homeless vendors a profit of 75 cents for each paper. Vendors couldn't drink alcohol on the job, Sharpe said, and would have to obey the restrictions outlined in the ordinance, which prohibits sales at the city's top 10 dangerous intersections. The list of most dangerous intersections could change over time, but currently includes sections of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and Fowler and Hillsborough avenues. Selling papers to the homeless would mostly cover the cost of producing it, Sharpe said. He said he also would depend on those who would contribute $25 to "sponsor" a homeless person. That would pay for the hawkers' T-shirts, buttons and initial 25 newspapers. The Tampa Epoch also would sell advertising space, he said. "Are we going to get wealthy doing this?" Sharpe asked. "It would only be a miracle." Sharpe said he came across the idea several months ago when he wrote a column for the South Tampa Community News about homelessness and the ordinance. Someone who read his column sent him an email with a link to "street" or "homeless" newspapers in Tennessee and San Francisco. He looked into them and realized as a newspaper publisher he had the working structure to turn the idea into reality. He has been in contact for months with a Nashville newspaper using a similar model, he said. "Somebody has to step in and do something," Sharpe said. "I'm not going to solve the problem, but I can help put a dent in it." Tim Marks, president of Metropolitan Ministries, said his organization has stayed away from the panhandling issue but said if the Tampa Epoch helps the homeless "move to self-sufficiency, those are things we're behind." Suarez said because Sharpe is a newspaper publisher, the Tampa Epoch is a legitimate business. That doesn't mean the plan will succeed, he said. "He still has to raise money to make this work for him," Suarez said. "He still needs a lot of work to get to where he is selling newspapers." Councilwoman Mary Mulhern used to live in Chicago, where she said "Streetwise," a homeless newspaper, was well received by the public. "They need work; they need money," Mulhern said of the homeless. "It's a way to do it with dignity." The councilwoman said it wouldn't be fair to prohibit sales of the Tampa Epoch when The Tampa Tribune, St. Petersburg Times and Florida Sentinel are allowed to sell their newspaper on city streets. However, Mulhern isn't certain how the Epoch will be received here. "People seemed to be so opposed to panhandling," Mulhern said. "We will just have to wait and see how it works."

Reporter Josh Poltilove contributed to this report. jpatino@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7659

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