ST. PETERSBURG — Gregory W. Rolle thinks public perception of the homeless in this city is wrong.
The indigent population is not all lazy or alcoholic. Though some do, not all the homeless rob and steal. Not all panhandlers are liars.
At the end of the day, Rolle insists, he never met a homeless person who wanted to be on the streets.
So Rolle, 54, who has been in and out of homelessness since he was 14, launched a newspaper about the homeless. It went on sale last month.
On the front page of the first edition of the bimonthly St. Petersburg Homeless Image is an article about the city being named the second meanest in the nation by the National Coalition for the Homeless because of policies "criminalizing" the homeless. Another piece points out that many homeless women have suffered domestic violence.
Inside, there is an update on Ted Allen Lenox, the homeless man struck by a city fire rescue truck last September, first-person memoirs of homeless people who died, and photos. One is of a woman and several children sleeping on cardboard (the image, though, downloaded from the Web site Flickr, was taken in Manila).
The point is to share untold stories, said Rolle.
"We are basically having the wrong conversation about homeless people in this city," Rolle said from a bed at Bayfront Medical Center recently, where he was recovering from pneumonia.
He said he got there by doing too much. Rolle is also the community education coordinator for the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless.
Years ago, Rolle said, he tried to start a similar newspaper in his native Ithaca, N.Y., but failed. He struggled to do so here, too, until he met Alex Pickett, 28, a local laid-off journalist who formerly worked at Creative Loafing. Pickett consulted and wrote several articles. Damaris Escalera, 20, a student at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, who wrote about the newspaper as part of her honors project on marginalized communities, designed the paper.
How far the publication will go is unclear. The first 10,000 copies cost about $1,100 to print, funded mostly through donations, a few advertisements and Rolle's savings.
Among those who bought an ad was Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger.
Dillinger, who founded the agency's Homeless Outreach Program, said he spent $100 out of his own pocket. He agrees St. Petersburg has a homeless image problem.
"About 18 to 20 percent of homeless cause the problems. The other percentage are people who are in need of services and just cannot get out of the hole," he said.
The paper works like the 20 other "street papers" in the country, including the Homeless Voice in Hollywood, Fla. They are sold wholesale for about a quarter each, then hawked for a dollar. Vendors keep the profit. The target audience is anyone who will pick it up.
"The act of purchasing it breaks down barriers," said Andy Freeze, executive director of the nonprofit North American Street Newspaper Association.
The concept of empowering homeless people that way dates to the early part of the 20th century. The oldest existing homeless newspaper in the country is the Street Sheet in San Francisco, which was founded in 1989, Freeze said.
Rolle said he gave away 5,000 copies to get things started. He could not say how many have been sold. Rolle does not coordinate how and when the paper is distributed. He said not all homeless will become vendors. Some may just rather panhandle or buy beer.
Mayor Bill Foster, who has pledged to toughen anti-panhandling laws, praised Rolle's entrepreneurship.
"Good for him!" Foster said. He said he hadn't seen the paper yet. He agreed the homeless is a misunderstood population.
"As I've said numerous times, I'm all about care and compassion. … As long as we are all working toward that goal, then we are all on the same page."
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