Jasen Howard sells The Contributor near Vanderbilt University in downtown Nashville. (Photo courtesy of Nashville On The Move)
They are invisible to most. They have fallen off the government’s grid. Yet, there are hundreds and thousands and millions of them around. Who are they?
They are the homeless who have, ironically, come to call Middle Tennessee their home.
While interaction with the homeless may be limited to volunteer work during the holidays, it could become more frequent.
Several homeless or formerly homeless folks have been seen around Murfreesboro throughout the past couple of years. And come February, their presence may be more noticed, when The Contributor will begin publishing twice a month instead of monthly.
With the slogan “Diverse perspectives on homelessness – Genuine opportunity for advancement,” The Contributor is a street newspaper in Nashville that began in November 2007.
“Street newspaper” is a term for a publication that focuses on the issues surrounding homelessness and poverty. It is sold by homeless and formerly homeless individuals on the street as an alternative to panhandling, according to The Contributor website.
Executive Director Tasha French said only three other cities’ newspapers have been around longer, but with 120,000 papers going out each month, The Contributor has the largest circulation in North America.
The decision to increase publication to twice a month is “just kind of a natural progression of growth,” she said.
“Homelessness affects a lot of people,” French continued. “(The Contributor) provides a flexible source of income when they’ve had trouble getting a flexible source of income other ways.”
While The Contributor could not specify how many of its vendors sell papers in Murfreesboro, French said vendors are located as far away as Goodlettsville and Rivergate.
“Since we don’t assign territory, we don’t know where they’re going,” she said.
Circulation Director Tom Willis explained how vendors are independent contractors, and as such, they choose where they want to sell papers. Vendors purchase papers for 25 cents each and then resell them for $1. Customers can give more, but they are only asked to pay $1 for each newspaper.
“Our main issue is to try to support the vendors and help them uphold their vendor code of conduct contract,” Willis said.
Vendors can apply to have priority over other vendors for a specific area, Willis said. However, none have been given in Murfreesboro, which means vendors have probably not yet dealt with competition here.
“But our vendor force is noble,” Willis said. “There is bus service between Nashville and Murfreesboro, so that a vendor who wouldn’t have access to a vehicle could technically have access to come to Nashville (for papers) and go to Murfreesboro to sell them.”
The question, he said, is really where is there a market for the paper, and is that market within range of The Contributor office in Nashville.
“We don’t tell the vendors where to go; it’s a very libertarian model… It’s up to them what they want to do, but they have to uphold their vendor code of conduct contract,” Willis said. “It describes how they sell the paper, not where. It does include abiding by the law – they can’t be in the middle of the street, but they have the right to sell the paper and to distribute the news, and that’s what they are doing.”
Some local motorists may have seen The Contributor vendors, while others may have not. That is why Willis said he advises his vendors to be consistent.
“If you stay in one spot, someone might drive by or walk by 10 times before they realize what you’re doing, or they might see you 10 times before they realize, ‘Wow! He or she has really got a good work ethic, and I want to support the effort you’re putting out,’” Willis said. “That’s how to build a customer base – be consistent.”
The Contributor also offers a lesson to its readers.
“Buying a paper from someone who has experienced homelessness and poverty is just as strong a part of the message as reading something about homelessness and poverty,” Willis said. “Those two things are intertwined in our message.”