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Homeless newspaper Epoch gone; cause lives on Facebook

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Published:   |   Updated: May 4, 2014 at 09:05 AM

The lofty social experiment in Tampa designed to give the homeless a hand out of poverty is over. It died quietly almost a year ago, although its fervor to help the needy has not abated.

Tampa Epoch, the brainchild of south Tampa marketer and publisher Bill Sharpe, survived for almost two years. The newspaper was sold on street corners by the poor and homeless to get around a panhandling ban enacted by the Tampa City Council in 2011.

The sellers kept 75 cents of the $1 price per issue — not much, but enough for some to buy necessities and maybe get shelter for a night.

Though the newspaper died last year, its Facebook presence continues on.

“I was working on the publication for July” 2013, said Amanda Molé, a former editor of Tampa Epoch, “and it disappeared.”

She said she tried reaching Steve Sapp, the publisher, but never got through. The edition died before it made it to the presses, and that was the end of the print product.

“Dear Epoch supporters,” Molé wrote on the Facebook page on Sept. 22. “Many of you have contacted this page to find out what is going on with the paper. In truth, I don’t have an exact answer for you. The last paper I edited went out in June. I do not know of any subsequent publications, nor have I been able to get hold of the paper’s publisher by phone or email for some time. I want to thank you for your support, and I will update this page immediately if anything changes.”

She said she had worked for the publication for less than a year, writing and editing stories when the paper went away in July.

“It was losing money,” she said.

The Facebook page for Tampa Epoch has more than 400 regular visitors, and although it doesn’t make money for the homeless or poor, it is a voice in cyberspace that takes up for their cause.

“It gives (the homeless and poor) a place to find resources,” Molé said, “and places to go to get help.”

A vocal advocate for the homeless, Molé posted this note to Facebook readers on Oct. 6:

“Dear friends: I have decided to keep this page running.

“I just want to let everyone know that I will continue to update this page with information about poverty, homelessness and at-risk families or communities in the Tampa area. There are 413 (now 439) of us on this page who care about this issue, and we can foster change if we stick together.”

Vendors were left out in the cold, she said, when the paper ceased publication. They, too, couldn’t reach anyone to find out what was going on.

“The vendors didn’t have my number,” Molé said. “I still keep the Facebook page going, and they can contact me through that. I can give them resources that I know of and refer them to places to go where they can get help.”

The items that would be published in the paper now are finding space on the Tampa Epoch Facebook page, which survived the print product and appears to be thriving.

For example, Molé sent out a Facebook call last year for hairstylists and makeover artists for women who have been helped off the streets and into homes. “They are socially awkward but very sweet, and I think it would give them a tremendous boost of self confidence after being beat down by years of poverty,” Molé wrote.

Still, advice doesn’t put money into a homeless person’s pocket. So, Molé and a few other advocates are looking into getting back into the publishing business.

“We’ve been talking about getting another street paper going, starting from scratch,’’ Molé said. “It takes longer than expected. I’m not a business person, I’m a teacher. None of us have any business background and we’re trying to navigate these waters.”

The goal is to get the paper going again, she said.

“We know straight off that we are facing some hurdles,” she said. “There are some negative perceptions we need to overcome with Epoch. It’s something we want to do. It does work in other papers, in other cities.

“And it can mean the difference between a family eating or not eating, making rent or not making rent,” she said. “People say we are trying to enable the problem, but anybody who’s stood outside in heat of the middle of the day and sold papers, they know this is not easy. We are not trying to enable the problem. We are giving these people an opportunity for a way out.”

Lesa Weikel, spokeswoman with the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, said the driving force behind the publication was Sharpe, and when he died, it was only a matter of time before Tampa Epoch passed as well.

After his death, she said, “a couple of people tried to keep it going, but they weren’t successful. Without Mr. Sharpe’s backing, they just couldn’t do it.”

Sharpe’s focus wasn’t on making money, she said, “it was just to break even and to give people an alternative to living on the streets.”

For vendors who no longer had a product to sell, she said, “I’m sure the loss of income had an impact on their lives. How drastic is hard to say. It could be the difference between a night on street or a night in an emergency shelter.”

The stated goal of the paper from the beginning in November 2011 was to help homeless people.

Two weeks after the Tampa City Council outlawed panhandling, leaving a provision that allowed newspaper vendors to hawk papers on street corners, Tampa Epoch was born. It was a way for homeless advocates to get around the law and to help needy people at the same time.

The presses ran off 20,000 first editions of the monthly paper, which included profiles of homeless people and details about agencies offering help and services.

After the death of the founder, the paper continued to publish, counting as many as 150 vendors on street corners selling the papers. Sales ranged from 8,000 editions during the off-season to 16,000 in winter.

Tampa police said the number of people arrested on panhandling charges remained about the same before and after the publication’s last issue hit the streets. For the year prior to the shuttering of Tampa Epoch, police averaged 45 arrests per month on panhandling charges. Afterward, officers logged about 47 arrests a month.

Vestiges of Tampa Epoch have all but disappeared.

The newspaper’s website links to somewhere else and the phone number for the business is disconnected. Former publisher Sapp could not be reached for comment. A greeting on a number for him says the message box is full.

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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