TAMPA — Before he published community newspapers, Bill Sharpe sold RVs. He was neither newspaper crusader nor do-gooder. He never liked giving money to panhandlers. He knew as much about the homeless as the next guy.
Two months of dawn interactions with people layered in sweatshirts and wool caps in a gravel parking lot on N Tampa Street have caused some kind of realignment. They all have stories. He has heard those stories since starting Tampa Epoch, a monthly homeless newspaper, after the city imposed its panhandling ban.
Every morning, as he resupplies his vendors, he hears more. Each has left an impression that, welcome or not, jolts his consciousness.
Elizabeth Ann Kain, 30, had a story. She had just gotten out of the hospital. She showed up at the parking lot at 7 a.m., asking to sell Epochs. He helped her cut off the hospital wristband. He gave her a bright blue Epoch T-shirt, an ID, a cloth bag and 25 free starter papers.
The average vendor sells about 30 copies a day. Each goes for a buck. Sharpe's cut is 25 cents. The vendor keeps 75 cents. The daily take is enough to pay for a $7 bed at the Salvation Army, three squares at McDonald's and bus fare.
It kept Elizabeth Kain going until Dec. 15, when her name appeared in a small item in the Times:
Kain, the news item said, "was found naked and stabbed to death in a check-cashing store parking lot."
Jeremy Reinert, 28, a man she met at a nearby church, was charged with her murder.
Kain was Epoch's first death, but also was the 61st homeless death in Hillsborough County in 2011. Again, Sharpe's consciousness shifted.
Sharpe, 59, shows up in the parking lot in a sports jacket. He does not try to blend. He looks like exactly what he is — publisher of the civically spirited, pro-small business South Tampa Community News.
In October, the City Council banned panhandling at intersections during the week but allowed street sales of newspapers. In the loophole, he saw as much opportunity as altruism. With Epoch, he figured he could turn a profit while creating entrepreneurs.
He hates the label bleeding-heart liberal.
"I'm creating independent businessmen," he said. "That's as Republican as it gets."
Sharpe posted job requirements:
"Independent, self-reliant worker with strong desire to create a better quality of life. Will work in the cold, heat, wind, among exhaust fumes (without complaining). . . . Able to withstand face-to-face insults (and even injury in some cases) from complete strangers."
In the parking lot last week, Linda Austin presented herself as an Epoch superstar.
She works a spot near Busch Gardens. She described her sales pitches: "I'm too blessed to be stressed," is one. Another is, "Be cheerful, it's contagious."
She made $60 the other day. That included a $5 tip she got when she spotted a car with Texas plates and yelled, "Hook 'em, Horns!"
Her natural exuberance sometimes gets her into predicaments. "I stopped on the Skyway to take a picture of a cruise ship going underneath," she said.
"People going by yelled, 'Don't jump!' "
"If I had 60 vendors like her," Sharpe said, "I'd be profitable." He has signed up about 270 vendors and of those, about two dozen are superstars.
"Some just can't do it," he said.
On a recent morning, bearded, shivering Don Wilson told Sharpe he had stood in Hyde Park for eight hours and sold one paper. The day before he had stood for seven hours and sold none. Just give me a few more copies, he said. He hadn't eaten for a day.
He was asked: But why bother?
"It's all I got."
More keep showing up. There's the veterans, some with Purple Hearts. There's the lady who protests that she's not really homeless, just living in her foreclosed home. Epoch helped her pay her light bill. "I don't belong here," she said, hurrying away with her bundle.
Cold and bedraggled at 7 a.m., she and the others looked anything but dangerous. But they often do frighten.
His consciousness realigned, Sharpe said he thinks he now knows why.
"They could be us," he said, "We're flat scared of that."
John Barry can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3383.