TAMPA — Bill Sharpe didn't want to wait and see how homeless people would fare under a new panhandling ban. When the restrictions went into effect, he started a newspaper they could sell on the streets to make money.
"People don't starve gracefully," he told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year. "You've got to give people an out."
But the fate of the 4-month-old Tampa Epoch, which one supporter called a "beacon of light" for the homeless, is now in doubt.
Sharpe, 59, was found dead by an employee Monday morning at his newspaper office at 1705 W State St. in North Hyde Park.
Police say he killed himself, though they have not provided specifics. The Hillsborough Medical Examiner's Office has not released the exact cause of death.
Friends said Sharpe had run into financial problems as his flagship newspaper, South Tampa Community News, struggled to make money in the recession and as he poured his heart — and what savings he had — into Tampa Epoch.
Last year, he lost his Bayshore Boulevard condo to foreclosure, county records show. He could not pay his staff. He moved himself and his cat into his offices.
But friends and associates said Sharpe retained his characteristic optimism and drive to improve the lives of the homeless people he considered his friends.
None of them saw this coming.
"This is horrific, shocking and totally surprising news," said John Dingfelder, a former Tampa City Council member who is an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.
"He was smart, he was devoted, he gave everybody hope," said Linda Karson, a homeless advocate who invested in the Tampa Epoch. "I'm very worried about the lifeline that's been handed to a lot of people."
Sharpe was a South Tampa fixture. While selling recreational vehicles for a living, he started a website in 2004 devoted to South Tampa happenings.
That led to his buying the South Tampa Community News, which he published for years. He was heavily involved in the Davis Islands Chamber of Commerce and organized several community events, including the recent Tampa Bay Seafood Festival at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
But his friends say Sharpe had a genuine concern for the poor, and as the economy got worse — and a panhandling limit in Tampa seemed more like a sure thing — he felt he had to do something.
Sharpe told the Times he saw how the often-bedraggled homeless people on street corners sometimes frightened drivers. He thought he knew why.
"They could be us," he said. "We're flat scared of that."
He came up with the controversial idea for the Tampa Epoch because the city's panhandling restrictions had an exemption for newspaper sales. The city ultimately banned panhandling six days a week but allowed it at most intersections on Sundays.
Under Sharpe's model, vendors could buy the papers for 25 cents each and keep 75 cents from reselling them for $1.
"He took a real interest in them," said Warren Elly, a retired television journalist who had been writing freelance stories for the Tampa Epoch. "Every time I saw him he had another story about a homeless person."
Karson said the Tampa Epoch had 300 vendors, and she was going to help it gain nonprofit status so she and Sharpe could start fundraising. She said the street newspaper was on track to break even this year.
Sharpe had a life before Tampa, too, one that he didn't talk much about.
A former stockbroker, he was chairman of the Pinellas Democratic Party for a year before being thrown out in 1988.
Then in 1997, he was found guilty of selling counterfeit American Express money orders while running a bar in Ocala. He was sentenced to two years under federal supervision, according to federal records.
He talked about that conviction with the Times earlier this year. "You go through a lot of stuff in life, you make a lot of mistakes," he said then.
Sharpe was divorced. He is survived by his mother and sister.
Karson recalled recently meeting a homeless man who was selling the Tampa Epoch. He told her he carried only two cards in his pockets:
His Social Security card. And Bill Sharpe's business card.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.