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Sue Carlton: Holding out hope for Epoch, a newspaper that gives help to the homeless

Just before sunrise Tuesday, the homeless and the all-but gather in a dusty parking lot next to a faded Army-Navy surplus store at the edge of downtown Tampa.

It is an appropriate backdrop. Even as this city has bloomed with tall, shiny buildings, parks, museums and restaurants, the old Army-Navy survives like a stubborn weed in the crack of a sidewalk. The homeless have, too.

Can the newspaper called Tampa Epoch?

In the parking lot, men and women shoulder backpacks and reach for bundles of the newspapers to hawk on street corners in a sidestep of last year's citywide panhandling restrictions.

I do not doubt for a second that Bill Sharpe, the businessman, brains and publisher behind the Epoch, sincerely meant for this publication to be a way for street people to help themselves.

But if it also gave city officials a little heartburn, too, well, I think he was okay with that. Sharpe wasn't about fixing the homeless problem, just giving a hand up.

But lately, supporters worried the latest edition — Volume 1, Issue 6 — could be the last, a collector's item marking but a brief blip in Tampa's plan to clear panhandlers off the streets.

Six months earlier, on a morning a lot like this, Sharpe was in a parking lot not far away, passing out the first edition.

Panhandlers were banned, yes, but newspaper hawkers were still legal. So newly minted "vendors" pulled on Epoch T-shirts and traffic vests and stood three deep listening to how the math worked. I remember faces suspicious, unbelieving and hopeful.

Drivers were just getting used to them out there selling, not begging, when the news broke of Sharpe's suicide last month. Friends said he was in financial trouble and poured what savings he had into the Epoch.

And so people who cared about him formed a group they call Friends of Bill to try to carry on. Proceeds from a gathering at MacDinton's, one of his favorite watering holes, went into the May issue. They thought it might be the last.

Or not. "Why EPOCH Must Survive," a front-page headline says. Steven Sapp, a marketing guy, plans to take over publishing and another person also has expressed interest.

Sapp says he believes the newspaper's future is definite "not even a maybe." That sounds hopeful.

On this morning, people in the parking lot are eager for their papers. Ted Triplett, a veteran who wears a cross around his neck, wants to catch traffic headed to MacDill Air Force Base. Good customers, he says. But business can be as fickle as the weather.

"Some days, you might pull in $30," Triplett says. For a man who just ran out of nightly rent paid for by the VA and whose church-donated shoes were recently stolen, that is something.

Another vendor, Mike Gentry, says he is from Indiana. When I ask how he landed here, he laughs and says there would not be enough time in the world for me to hear that story. This must be true of every person here — each one once had parents and a home and ended up in this parking lot anyway. Maybe that's what Bill Sharpe was talking about.

Gentry says the paper gives people like him a chance to be an asset instead of a liability. "It's better than begging," he says.

And if it ends?

"I'll survive," he says, and climbs on his bike with his papers to sell and is gone.

Sue Carlton: Holding out hope for Epoch, a newspaper that gives help to the homeless 05/01/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 2, 2012 12:04am]
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