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In the homeless wars, a man with a plan

Finally, some people must have been saying around here. We banned the bums.

No, wait. We passed "ordinances" against "street solicitation" largely affecting the "homeless" seeking cash donations on corners. We did this because of "safety concerns" and certainly not because we do not like grim reality staring at us through the windshield.

To be fair, Tampa officials faced with complaints about a legion of panhandlers struggled for solutions. They finally opted for compromise, allowing newspaper hawkers on the street all week and anyone from charity volunteers to homeless people on Sundays. St. Petersburg all-out banned it on major streets.

So the most hard-core crowd against panhandling, big on bans but not so much solutions, must have been saying: Done deal and don't let the door hit you on the way out. Now along comes Bill Sharpe with plans for a monthly street newspaper the homeless can hawk and make money to help themselves — a well-meaning venture sure to make some citizens unhappy all over again.

I met Sharpe one day when I was talking to Occupy Tampa protesters at downtown's riverfront park. This neatly dressed guy was overseeing the setup of an event tent nearby for a barbecue-and-blues fundraiser to re-open a public pool. When he walked over, I thought he would warn occupiers away from his party, but no, he shook hands and said he hoped they would enjoy the music. Later, when his decorative bales of hay arrived, protesters helped unload the truck.

Sharpe, publisher of the South Tampa Community News, got the idea for the Tampa Epoch after he wrote a column about the panhandling conundrum and learned about street publications in other cities that feature stories of homelessness, poverty and help. That's "epoch" as in "significant moment in time," he says, because we're in one.

It works like this: The paper sells advertising and seeks people to sponsor homeless "vendors" at $25 each. That gets a vendor 25 papers to sell at $1 a copy, plus anything extra customers might give. The next batch of papers costs a vendor 25 cents a copy. Sharpe's not saying the Epoch will save the world, but helping a few people get off the street would be nice.

When he went to a church that feeds the homeless on Sundays, some said even they thought panhandlers had gotten too aggressive. About 15 signed up to sell his paper, maybe because there's a dignity in it beyond begging. Others wanted to write, and imagine the stories in them. On the form potential vendors fill out, in the space for "contact person," some wrote no one at all. Sharpe says they will have highly visible T-shirts, name badges and supervision. His paper comes out next week, before Thanksgiving, when people tend to give a little more.

So how might this play with the public, particularly those who showed up in droves to complain about panhandling? Will it be different when they are selling something instead of asking for a handout?

People have called him to say bless you, and can I help. Others are less happy. You're only encouraging them, they say. Don't do this. "It's one of the most comfortable decisions I've ever made," he says. And here's the best answer yet for the roust-'em crowd. "If you don't like my plan, that's okay," Sharpe says. "But what's yours?"

In the homeless wars, a man with a plan 11/11/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 12, 2011 12:57am]
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