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Street paper Tampa Epoch helps homeless in its first year

TAMPA

Dan Santiago stands in the din and fumes of nine lanes of traffic. When the lights turn red, he watches car windows for a signal while his two children sit on the sidewalk doing homework.

Maybe you've seen his family in front of a gas station on Fowler Avenue, or at the corner of Sligh and Florida avenues. For a time, they sat on a corner on N Dale Mabry Highway, near the Whole Foods Market, selling bottles of water.

A tinted window on a white BMW lowers and a woman holds out a bill. She turns away the newspaper Santiago offers. He takes the money.

• • •

At the launch of the Tampa Epoch a little more than a year ago, critics called the monthly street paper a way to sidestep a city crackdown on panhandling. The Epoch, now sold by many former panhandlers, fell under an exemption carved out for newspaper sales.

"It's not a newspaper; it's a loophole," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Friday. "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."

Its publisher, Steven Sapp, rejects the loophole label. He calls the paper "a ladder,'' a means for those reduced to begging to gain job skills and a sense of self-worth.

Loophole or ladder, many say the paper is helping them.

The paper's 72 full-time vendors are independent contractors who sign a deal agreeing to dress neatly and not "hard-sell, threaten or pressure customers."

Sapp says 52 of them, including Santiago and his wife, Mandie, have a stable place to sleep because of the Epoch. They pay 25 cents per paper, which they in turn sell for $1. But the average take is $5 per paper, Sapp said, because people give extra or decline to take one.

Eight months ago, when the Santiagos were panhandling, someone told them about the Epoch and they got their first papers from Sapp. Usually, they buy 50 copies every other day.

Last month, Dan, 40, and Mandie, 31, got an apartment with the proceeds of their sales. It was their first stable home in two years.

• • •

They started out with a sign.

People driving by called them liars, doubting the sign's claim of a family.

"Fine," Dan said. "We'll prove it to you."

The kids come with them most days after school and on Sundays, when the ban is lifted and the parents take turns selling bottles of water. One of them sits with the children while the other holds the sign.

Now they hear the flip side.

"Why you got your kids out here?"

The parents say they have been reported for abuse for having the children along the road, but said state social workers who investigated took no action.

Dan has worked in the past, but getting a job is complicated. In 2006, according to state records, he was convicted of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. This keeps managers from hiring him at convenience or retail stores or fast-food restaurants, he said.

Selling papers is a last resort, he said.

They try to make it fun. Brandie, 10, brings a song folder and writes stories and draws pictures. She wrote a rap song about her mother that goes: You ain't messin with my mommy.

Jacob, 7, takes a deck of cards and a snack. As a reward, they pick up fast-food when done.

Brandie said she has fun sometimes playing outside but not when the police come and she has to run to get away from the road. In the past, police warned the parents not to let them play too near.

"Sometimes I get bored and start to get hungry," she said.

Sometimes she hears vulgar things, most often when the light turns green and cars pull off.

"Sometimes people call us names," she said.

One cold day, they had pulled their arms and legs into their sweatshirts when a woman stopped and handed them coats.

Brandie knows her parents need money for rent.

Her mother tells her they are an example. Both parents dropped out of school in 10th grade.

"What has it taught you?" she asked her daughter.

"Go to school, get an education. Go to college."

"So you don't end up like?"

"Mommy and Daddy," Brandie said.

• • •

Sapp waits downtown next to the Army Navy Surplus Market most mornings before 8 a.m. This is where the vendors meet him to pick up papers.

The 29-year-old started as a volunteer, working with Bill Sharpe, who founded the Epoch. When Sharpe committed suicide April 2, Sapp decided he couldn't let the paper die, too. It had become a lifeline to many.

The cause wasn't glamorous, he said, but "these people became my friends."

Sapp quotes statistics ranking Tampa's homeless population with the largest nationally.

Many of these people have obstacles to employment. They lack identification or a phone or address. They need a second chance. Sapp did, too.

In 2009, he got in trouble with police following a domestic violence incident, according to state records. He was sentenced to two years of community supervision, which he's currently serving.

Sapp said he works 70 hours a week for the paper and plans to help more people get off the streets and into housing. He says at a cost of $120 per month per vendor, the paper is Tampa's most cost-effective plan to help the homeless. He's hoping for people to sign up to sponsor vendors.

Operational costs totaled $72,000 for the year, Sapp said. About $30,000 of that was recouped in advertisements and paper sales. The rest was covered by his for-profit quarterly magazine, INsight Tampa, and festivals and pub crawls he organizes.

Epoch's monthly sales fluctuate between 8,000 and 16,000, Sapp said. So far in December, the paper's 12th issue, vendors have sold 14,400.

Mandie picked up 50 papers on a recent morning and a bag full of bananas from two women from a church outreach group. Sapp counts the Santiagos among the paper's successes, along with a woman who recently used her profits to buy a car.

• • •

Dan and Mandie got saved and married 12 years ago at the River at Tampa Bay Church.

Dan has worked in construction, remodeling bathrooms and kitchens and managed a convenience store and a thrift store. Five years ago, the couple rented a three-bedroom trailer in Lutz. They lived there for almost three years, until Dan lost a job.

They moved into a motel and started selling water with the kids.

Last year's panhandling ban included street-side water sales, which are now allowed only on Sunday. That's when they make the most money, Dan said. The amounts vary and he wouldn't give an average. Sometimes, he said, he holds the sign three hours and makes $10.

He wishes more people would take the paper, which features stories on poverty and homelessness, instead of just giving him cash.

"A lot of people don't want it," said Dan, "But we push it. It's actually a good paper."

Still, he'd rather have a job. He thinks he can support his family on $10 an hour.

"Honestly, we hate doing this," he said. "I don't feel like a man standing out here doing this. It's real stressful on the emotions."

• • •

The Santiagos moved out of the motel a month ago. They had lived there, on Nebraska Avenue, for two years. At first they paid $40 by the day, and then $250 by the week.

The children wanted to move.

The owners were mean, said Jacob, and didn't let him ride his bike.

"We never called it home," Brandie said.

Now in a two-bedroom apartment, where the rent is $600, they save $500 each month. Paying bills is still a struggle. Early in December, when printing of the Epoch ran late, the family's electricity was turned off for a day.

But for now, at least, the kids have a place to call home.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3431.

Street paper Tampa Epoch helps homeless in its first year 12/28/12 [Last modified: Friday, December 28, 2012 11:56pm]

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