Monday, April 23, 2018
Human Interest

Tampa 'Epoch' refurbishes home for homeless vendors


After almost nine years on the road, Ron and Jennifer Smith are coming home.

It's just a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house with dull yellow paint, but it's a start.

"It's beautiful," Jennifer said. "It's just wonderful."

They're living with another couple in the East Tampa house, which is owned by Tampa Epoch newspaper publisher Steven Sapp as an option for affordable housing for homeless people in the area. The newest issue of the monthly Epoch hits streets this week, just as Sapp says volunteers will be making final repairs to the home.

• • •

It's a new venture for the Epoch, which has been circulating for almost two years. When the city of Tampa passed restrictions on panhandling in November 2011, local businessman Bill Sharpe started the newspaper as part of the North American Street Newspaper Association — a group that produces publications geared toward homelessness issues that are sold by homeless people.

Sapp said the Epoch keeps more than 50 people off the streets each month and loses two to four employees each month to other, more stable jobs. He sees the Epoch as a steppingstone to economic stability.

"People say, 'Why don't they get a job?' But I don't see any of them offering a job," Sapp said. "I can't make money for you, but I can give you the tools to make money."

Opponents say the Epoch's business model is simply a way around the panhandling limits.

"It's not a newspaper; it's a loophole," Mayor Bob Buckhorn told the Tampa Bay Times last year. "It's a misguided attempt to end-run what is clearly the community consensus that panhandling in the middle of major intersections is dangerous and a safety hazard for everyone concerned."

• • •

Sapp started working at the Epoch two years ago as a volunteer, but stepped up to be publisher when Sharpe was found dead in April 2012. Sapp says he funds the Epoch mostly from his personal checkbook.

Over and over, Sapp said, he heard from homeless individuals that the biggest issue they face was finding housing. It takes two months to find a bed with the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, he said. That's when he had the idea of the Epoch vendor houses.

"Once you get a taste of what's going on in your community, it's hard not to act," said Sapp, who bought the house in 2010 with his brother as an investment property. "Moving into the home was the next logical step."

The two couples in the house will each pay $500 a month starting Aug. 1, Sapp said. That rent will include water, electric, cable and maintenance of the home.

Sapp said they've used volunteers to help out with maintenance, including yard care and unexpected repairs. Those volunteers will help clean up another home that Sapp hopes to use to house more Epoch vendors.

The best thing to do for the homelessness problem in Tampa, Sapp said, is to offer long-term solutions rather than passing ordinances that he says criminalize homelessness.

He said being homeless is getting tougher in Tampa. Last week, Buckhorn signed two ordinances banning "aggressive panhandling" downtown and in Ybor City, and banning urinating, sleeping and storing personal items in public.

"It's like a big distraction and illusion to seem like they're doing something about the homeless problem," Sapp said. "The next day we wake up, we still have a homelessness problem."

• • •

The Smiths faced that problem head-on when Ron and Jennifer decided to get out of the carnival business last December. Ron's a veteran, and he said the Department of Veterans Affairs pointed them to Sapp and the Epoch house.

Without it, he said he didn't know where they'd go.

"We just decided we want to live a straight life," Ron said. "We wanted to be part of society again."

Now, he works as a contractor seven days a week. He's saving up enough money to buy a more permanent home, but in the meantime he's happy with the little yellow house.

"It's like a breath of fresh air," Ron said. "I go to work each day, and I come home, I come to a home. I get to come to a home."

Charles Scudder can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3111.

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