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Politics

Unemployed, homeless selling Tampa Epoch newspaper today

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 07:18 AM

Margaret Rangel isn't homeless, but she's been out of work for a while now and if it wasn't for her mom, who lives near Brandon, she would be out on the street. She was among more than two dozen indigent folks lining up to pick up stacks of newspapers to sell on the street this morning.

Tampa Epoch is a way for out-of-work people and the homeless to get extra cash. The first edition of the South Tampa-published tabloid newspaper was created specifically to be sold on street corners by the poor.

"I've had a rough time finding a job," said Rangel, 49. "If it wasn't for my mom, I would be homeless." She said she recently attended a church revival and heard about Tampa Epoch's search for vendors.

She has never panhandled before. "I was too scared to," she said, "though, many times I thought about it."

Created after the Tampa City Council outlawed panhandling within the city limits, the first edition of Tampa Epoch is a way for the homeless and poor on street corners around the city to still make some money.

While the city ordinance criminalizes panhandling, newspaper vendors are exempt. That means newspapers can be sold to motorists stopped at intersections, as long it's not a public safety hazard.

The business model is a project of Bill Sharpe, publisher of the South Tampa Community News. He said he wanted to create a way to keep the meager flow of income going to the chronically poor and homeless.

Sharpe said he was irked when the City Council banned panhandling, but the shrewd marketer recognized the opportunity.

To those who say he is skirting the intent in the panhandling law, which is to keep solicitors off the street corners, Sharpe has this to say: "That's bull … The ordinance is crystal clear and other newspapers are out there every day."

Tampa police said the newspaper vendors are within the law.

"We would just monitor it," said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. "There's nothing we are planning proactively." Police will take action, she said, "only if we get complaints."

Since the panhandling ban went into effect two weeks ago, two people have been cited under the ordinance. Both were given notices to appear in court, rather than arrested and taken to jail, she said.

Sharpe said he has printed 20,000 first editions of the monthly newspaper that contains human interest profiles of homeless people and details about agencies that offer help and services.

Indigent vendors met this morning at Public Storage on West Kennedy Boulevard to pick up their copies and go out and hawk them on the streets.

The issues cost $1 each and here's where the money goes:

The vendors get the first 25 newspapers free. Once they sell those papers and earn their first $25, they can 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.

Sharpe said he wants to ease the suffering of the down-and-out.

"We have to do something to help these people out," he said. "We have 18,000 homeless people in Tampa every night." He said his business model mirrors one in Tennessee that sells 100,000 papers a month.

"Our goal is to eventually sell 40,000 a month," he said. "That would help get some homeless people off the street."

At the end of the day, Sharpe said he had no idea how many issues were sold.

"Don't have a clue," he said, "never planned to count them."

He did say that one vendor at the corner of Hillsborough and Armenia avenues was offered and accepted a job pouring asphalt.

"That was a good story," Sharpe said.

After the first 25 papers, he stands to make 25 cents on every copy sold. Advertising seemed sparse in the first edition, with ads from Tampa Crossroads, a charity that helps the poor, and other ads from a real estate agency and a medical weight loss clinic and a gym.

Vendors lined up to sign forms and get instructions from distribution manager Brooks Morgan. He told them that aggressive solicitations are forbidden. He said vendors need only hold the paper up on the sidewalk and wait for customers to wave them over.

Vendors all were given blue T-shirts and fluorescent vests.

Morgan said alcohol use was prohibited and selling papers to others to re-sell also is forbidden.

"If I hear of any of that," he said, "I'll cut you off."

Trendale Wolfork, 27, has panhandled for three years, selling water and sodas for cash. It was his only source of income and it ended on Nov. 1, when the panhandling law went into effect.

He collected his papers and left for his favorite corner: Busch Boulevard and Nebraska Avenue.

"This," he said, "is the way to go."


kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760

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