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Epoch homeless newspaper plan a publishing success


Published:   |   Updated: June 11, 2013 at 11:35 AM

Tampa Epoch's publisher Steve Sapp begins his mornings handing out papers to his hawkers, mostly desperate people struggling for money. His days end thinking about what will go into the next issue, and how in the world he is going to pay for it.

The grand experiment began some 16 months ago to ease homelessness in Tampa by giving needy people the lion's share of profits from the sales of the tabloid. It is chugging along today, with as many as 150 vendors on the street corners selling the paper and as few as 50. It depends on the season, Sapp says.

Sales range from 8,000 a month in the summertime to 16,000 in the winter.

"We are doing pretty steady," says Sapp. "Summer is the slowest time of the year, really, for any type of print publication. But we stay steady."

Sapp is the reluctant publisher. He took over after Bill Sharpe, a South Tampa marketing man who started Epoch, took his own life last year.

Prior to that, Sapp, who has an online entertainment publishing business, had volunteered his time as Epoch's circulation director.

"It didn't appear as if anyone was going to take the mantle of Epoch," Sapp says. "The future of the paper was in doubt. We were just trying to get one more issue out and we would be done after that."

That was troubling, he says, "since I had been there from the beginning."

He could see the business model was benefitting people on the street, "who just needed a hand to get back on their feet."

The paper was the brainchild of Sharpe, who became angry when the Tampa City Council passed a panhandling ban, criminalizing begging on street corners.

But newspaper hawkers were exempted so Sharpe began publishing Epoch, selling it for $1 a copy. He gave his vendors the first 25 copes free so they could keep the profits. After that, he charged them 25 cents a copy and allowed the street sellers to keep 75 cents profit.

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Panhandling critics complained Sharpe was taking advantage of the loophole, but homeless advocates hailed the idea as a way to put a few extra bucks in the pockets of people who have no other means of making money. Some buyers pay vendors more than the cover price.

The paper survived, but when Sharpe died, many thought it would fade. Sapp keep up the good fight.

"Sales have increased," he says, "from what it was last year during the same months."

Headaches with publishing the paper are many, from paying the bills to bailing vendors out of jail if they are charged with trespassing or vagrancy.

If arrests appear to be harassment, he goes to bat for his newspaper hawkers. There have been times when trespassing charges have been dismissed in court, he says.

"I do as best as I can," he says, "but my time is limited."

He often gets calls from vendors with problems, sometimes on weekends and late at night, during holidays and vacations. He is asked to iron out whatever issues come their way, and there are many.

"It's been a rough path," he says. At 29, Sapp has had to figure out some things on the fly. He's had no publishing experience.

"None whatsoever," he says. "But, it's very simplistic as far as what you need to do and shouldn't be doing. No more than four of us put this thing together. Sometimes it goes smoothly, other times, it doesn't."

He has not missed a deadline or failed to put copies of the monthly paper on the street.

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Unlike many newspapers, advertising is not a big part of Epoch's income, he says. The paper focuses on homeless issues, and profiles homeless people and advocates who help them.

"Advertisers are not knocking down the door to place ads," he says.

Sapp has had to turn to other revenue streams. Besides advertising and circulation, add charitable fund raising to his duties as publisher. He has established the monthly Angel program through which donors can contribute money to keep the paper publishing.

There is no profit, he says, but Epoch does make a difference in the lives of people who sell it.

"I don't like to say I help them," Sapp says, "The people did it themselves, I just give them a tool."

He says that every month, the paper loses two to three vendors who have pulled themselves up and landed full-time jobs.

"It's a good thing," he says. "It's music to my ears when I hear that. Selling a newspaper is not meant to be permanent job."

Most of the vendors are not homeless, but definitely in need.

"They are in between jobs and need an extra source of income to make ends meet," he says. "That's the mission behind all this. We want to get them out of the system."

Forty-six-year-old Ann Abare began selling Epoch a year ago and it changed her life.

"I just was homeless and needed to make money without going to jail," she says. "Now, I'm not homeless anymore, I'm living with my mom. I'm getting my life together. I got a vehicle and I quit drinking.

"Epoch has done a lot for me."

She says she seldom takes time off.

"I need the money," she says, "so I work every day."

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Abare sells about 150 copies a month and that's enough to pay for car insurance and gas. She travels around to different intersections throughout the city selling the newspaper.

"It's a blessing," she says.

Thomas Castellana, 66, has been selling Epoch mostly on the corner of West Kennedy Boulevard and Lois Avenue for a little over a year and says it has helped put him back on his feet.

He was living in a $180,000 condominium at Carrollwood Place but lost his home and his business then ended up maxing out 12 credit cards before hitting rock bottom.

"I was panhandling," he says. "I had no place to stay. I was living with a girl and her boyfriend in a motel. I stayed in a motel for over a year."

With a Social Security check and income from selling more than 300 copies of Epoch a month, he is able to pay for an apartment and food and is getting his life back together.

"Things are working out well," he says. "I got a roof over my head and my rent is paid. Finally, I don't have to worry about a place to stay."

Those are the stories that keep Sapp going, though he puts in about 50 hours a week in addition to publishing his online Tampa entertainment magazine. Epoch doesn't cut him a paycheck and he says he ends up having to shell out some of his own cash to get it published every month.

Still, he plans to stick with the effort.

Epoch could be around for a while, he says, "to keep on the path and stay true to the folks who depend on this newspaper."

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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