Day 4: Jenn and The Bridge: The Memphis Street Paper

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Today my volunteering odyssey brought me to St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, where The Bridge, a Memphis newspaper featuring content written by the homeless, held a distribution meeting for returning vendors and training for new ones.

The Bridge gets its name from its aim to “bridge the gap” between homeless and sheltered by giving a voice and income to the homeless community.  Its the first paper of its kind here in Memphis.  Four students from Rhodes College came up with the idea, basing it on similar papers in other cities.  MidSouth Peace and Justice is helping with finances.  The monthly paper is sold by the homeless for a dollar an issue.  Its content is produced by the homeless or formerly homeless, and contributors are paid for their articles and artwork.

At today’s distribution meeting, returning vendors were there to pick up more papers and a few new people were there to train.  All vendors are certified and given a badge to identify them as legitimate sellers. Each person gets 20 free copies of the month’s edition.  They can buy more copies for a quarter a piece and then sell them for a dollar.  The vendors keep all the profit.  One man bought one-hundred copies and said he had sold around 70 in the last few days.

Because the vendors are selling the paper, what they are doing is not panhandling.  I wasn’t too surprised to hear the vendors are not allowed on Beale Street, but I was shocked that they aren’t allowed near some churches.  The Bridge also communicates with Memphis Police to make sure the vendors aren’t hassled.  The vendors are also held to certain standards.  They must wear their badge when they’re selling.  They can’t sell anything other than the paper while wearing the badge.  There’s no harassing and no obstructing traffic.

My role as volunteer was to stack the papers in groups of 20 for distribution.

The college students putting this paper together are working on their own time.  It was nice to witness their dedication first hand.

Jenn Allmon is a journalist and public relations professional with over ten years experience in local television. She can be reached for volunteer or employment opportunities at jennallmon@gmail.com.

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Week 12, Day 4: Michael Garcia at The Bridge

Michael Garcia helps out The Bridge.

Today my volunteering odyssey brought me to St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, where The Bridge held a training meeting for new vendors. The Bridge is Memphis’ first street paper – it is a monthly paper sold by the homeless or those struggling to not become homeless. Its content is produced by the homeless or formerly homeless, and contributors are paid for their articles and artwork. The Bridge was founded this past March by students at Rhodes College, some of whom also provide additional content for the paper. Each month, the vendors are given 20 free copies of The Bridge, and they can buy additional copies for 25 cents per copy, and issues sell for $1 a copy. Vendors are given incentives for buying additional copies to sell, aside from the profit margin. Depending on the additional number of copies they buy, they receive free bus passes, a canvas bag or a snazzy vest with The Bridge logo on it. The vendors are also given 10 free copies of The Bridge for each friend of theirs they refer to The Bridge who becomes a new vendor. Vendors are given cards with all the essential information about The Bridge to pass on to friends so that they can become vendors too.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, not to be confused with St. Mary’s Catholic Church where I helped out in the soup kitchen on Monday, is a beautiful neo-gothic structure with gorgeous stained-glass windows that reminded me of the many medieval churches I visited during my time living in England. I passed through cathedral itself, admiring the architectural features, on my way to the Parish Hall, where The Bridge holds its training meetings.

The interior of St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral.

The interior of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral.

 

On my arrival, I met some of the staff behind The Bridge: James, Monique and Shiven. After helping set up tables and chairs, I sat at a table by the doors to the hall and greeted new vendors as they arrived. I had them give me their name, took their photograph for their badge, and had them answer some questions for a demographic survey. Today we had four new vendors show up for the training session, and I am told that attendance is usually in the single digits. The training meetings happen every Thursday at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral at 1 o’clock.

After getting the names and photographs of everyone, the new vendors were given their training briefing by Roderick, one of the writers for The Bridge who himself endured a decade of homelessness. Roderick explained how The Bridge works and gave some advice on how to be an effective and successful vendor. After Roderick’s briefing, the new vendors were asked to practice their sales pitch on each other. When their practice session was over, I helped distribute copies of The Bridge to the new vendors and returning vendors, keeping track of how many copies each vendor received and any incentives they are owed on a handy Google Docs spreadsheet designed by Shiven.

Michael Garcia helps out The Bridge.

Michael Garcia helps out The Bridge.

 

Although they may be in similar circumstances, there was a stark contrast between the vendors I met volunteering for The Bridge and the people I encountered at the soup kitchen, and I don’t know if it was simply the context. The people at the soup kitchen were quiet and solemn. The vendors for The Bridge were very lively, talkative, and eager to tell me their stories. It might be that I had more opportunity to interact with the vendors at The Bridge. One of the new vendors, Margaret, was very inquisitive about how The Bridge works and how she could become a successful vendor. Some of the returning vendors, particularly Mila and Ron, impressed me with their enthusiasm and entrepreneurial vision. Mila had the bright idea to gain commissions from any advertisers she brings to The Bridge. Tony tried very hard to get additional copies of The Bridge for free.

I was particularly affected by a returning vendor named Ron Butler. If I met him somewhere else, I might not have guessed that he was homeless. We had a lengthy conversation together. He told me how his past employment at The Commercial Appeal and the Tri-State Defender is providing valuable experience working for The Bridge. I also learned that he is a musician who loves classical and jazz, he performed in a military band, and while serving in the military he was stationed in Germany. So we had a moment of mutual appreciation for living in Europe. We even exchanged a few words in German. Ron seems to be on his way to getting his life sorted out, and I really hope he succeeds.

One of the aims of The Bridge is to help change society’s perception of the homeless, and my experience there today has definitely changed my perspective. Although I already knew this, I saw first-hand that people become homeless for a variety of reasons. The vendors I met today are motivated to work hard to improve their situation and The Bridge is providing an excellent opportunity for them to do so.

Thank you for reading! I’m searching for a job as an historical consultant, researcher or educator. If you know of a great fit, please send it our way: jobleads@volunteerodyssey.com.

Cheers,
Michael

My profile pages:
LinkedIn
Academia.edu

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Week 9, Day 6: Ellen at “The Bridge” Street Paper

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Today’s volunteer experience was particularly difficult for me. I helped man a booth at the Cooper-Young Farmer’s Market where vendors were selling “The Bridge” – a newspaper written by and/or about the homeless of Memphis. Its intention is to bridge the gap between those without shelter with those who have a home, raise awareness of homelessness in Memphis and provide an income for the vendors of the $1.00 publication who are, in fact, homeless.

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I sat and chatted today with two vendors, one of the directors of “The Bridge,” (a remarkable 18-year old college student) and another volunteer with a determined dedication to help the homeless. Time flew as we all sat and got to know one another when we weren’t encouraging folks to stop by the booth and learn what “The Bridge” is all about. But as I got to know one of the vendors, “Pepsi Kid,” (he prefers this nickname and also requested I reference him by this name for my blog), I found myself trying to conceal tears squeezing out of the sides of my eyes. I surprised myself when I had this reaction. I’ve accumulated about six years working with poor families in struggling communities. I have invested long hours meditating on how to balance compassion and courage with acceptance. But when “Pepsi Kid” told me about his day-to-day life and struggles, an irrational bleeding heart mentality that I thought I had grown out of desperately wanted to emerge. Did he want to come by my house and take a shower? Could we cook him a big, healthy meal? I quieted those thoughts and mentally slapped my irrationality across the face as I continued listening.

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So I did just that: continued listening to real life stories about homelessness. The other vendor, “J”, and “Pepsi Kid” would talk about sleeping spots, places to get a meal, and how to obtain birth certificates. We also shared fun moments and laughter while talking about movies we liked, hobbies and things we’d like to do one day. “Pepsi Kid,” would like to have a family and is looking forward to an article he wrote being published in the September issue of “The Bridge.”

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I know that tonight as I reflect on my experience, “J” is at the shelter where he stays and “Pepsi Kid,” who doesn’t like to stay in shelters, is looking for a clean, hidden spot to sleep somewhere in downtown Memphis. That’s hard to accept after spending three hours getting to know them. I hope it is also hard to accept for the seventy people who bought “The Bridge” today. When offered the perspective of what life is like without a shelter, it changes hearts and affects perceptions. I extend my admiration to the students of Rhodes College who initiated this project in Memphis and are providing a way for the homeless to share with the sheltered, as well as make a small income. I also admire the homeless who are putting themselves in the public eye to sell a publication to people who often would rather pretend they don’t exist. It is our chance as “the sheltered” on the other side of “the bridge,” to reflect on how we perceive homelessness and what we can do in response. The causes and appropriate responses are complex, but taking up the challenge to reflect on it is 100% worth it. Buying an issue of “The Bridge” from a vendor is the perfect first step.

 

El resumen en español:

Hoy fue el día más impactante de mi odisea. Estuve ayudando a vender un periódico que se llama “The Bridge” que vale $1.00 y está escrito por y/o acerca de personas desamparadas. Yo pase tres horas con dos vendedores del periódico, quienes son hombres sin hogar. Ellos reciben las ganancias de sus ventas.

Hubo un momento en que tuve que esconder las lágrimas que querían salir de las esquinas de mis ojos mientras me estaban contando acerca de sus vidas. Esta reacción mía me sorprendió mucho. Tengo años de experiencia trabajando con familias pobres. He invertido mucho tiempo en meditar como balancear compasión y coraje con la habilidad de aceptar. Un lado de mi persona irracional quería escapar e invitar a los hombres a mi casa para bañarse y comer. Mentalmente yo pegue una cachetada a mi irracionalidad y me quede callada escuchando acerca de la realidad de ser desamparado.

Yo sé que hoy en la noche unos de los hombres que no le gusta dormir en los refugios está buscando un lugar limpio y escondido para descansar en el centro de Memphis. El otro ya está en el refugio. Eso es muy difícil aceptar después de pasar tres horas con ellos. Espero que sea difícil aceptar también para las setenta personas que hoy compraron “The Bridge.” Cuando uno está enfrentado con la perspectiva de cómo sería estar sin hogar, nuestros corazones y puntos de vistas son afectados y cambiarán. Admiro mucho a los vendedores por salir en el ojo público para intentar ganarse la vida en un mundo que prefiere que no existieran. Es nuestra oportunidad como los que tenemos hogar en el otro lado del puente de reflexionar acerca de la realidad de las personas desamparadas y cómo podemos responder en una forma constructiva. Las causas y las respuestas son complejas, pero tomar el reto de meditar sobre el asunto vale la pena 100%. Comprar “The Bridge” de un vendedor es el primer paso perfecto.

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