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Sue Carlton: Missing the man with a plan to help the homeless

It was a great story, one that had TV reporters in their sharp suits and heels out on a cool November morning stalking around a Tampa warehouse parking lot and talking up homeless people.

Some scruffy bearded men hung back at the fringe, waiting for this miraculous chance to work they'd heard about and glaring off reporters and their microphones. Didn't matter. Lots of people waiting that day were ready to tell stories of how they got there.

There was the couple with two dogs who lived behind a warehouse. The woman who teared up talking about how she had sunk to selling herself on the streets. The kid who said he messed up with some arrests but was better now, and maybe one day he'd even own a car.

In the midst of all this came Bill Sharpe, businessman, community newspaper publisher and the man with a plan to do something about the homeless besides making them go away.

"Homeless people are brothers and sisters and sons and daughters — they're not just people standing out there," he said to the cameras that morning. "I think people forget that sometimes."

Behind him, street people were pulling on T-shirts that said "Tampa Epoch" and eagerly accepting armfuls of copies of the first edition of the so-named homeless newspaper.

And, voila. Banned panhandlers became street-legal vendors.

Talk about a story with legs.

City officials wrestling with a panhandling epidemic had only weeks earlier passed a panhandling ban. But they made an exception for newspapers.

Enter Sharpe.

He already ran the South Tampa Community News, and he came up with the Epoch, as in, a noteworthy moment in time. "Vendors" get the monthly papers for a quarter each (the first 25 were free) and then hawk them for a buck — plus anything extra a kindhearted driver might throw in.

Some people were not amused by this plan that put the homeless back on the very corners they had just been shooed off. The mayor called it an "excuse to get around an ordinance."

Not a loophole, Sharpe said that morning. More like a chance to earn enough for a meal at McDonald's and a night inside, to get ahead.

"Americana and capitalism at its finest," he said.

(Later I asked if he deliberately included a feature photo of the mayor on the front page of that first edition. He made a "Who, me?" face and laughed.)

"They could be us," he told a reporter. "We're flat scared of that."

This week, the story took an abrupt and terrible turn, one that stunned Sharpe's friends. He was gone. Police say he had killed himself.

No one can know all that was going on with him, what was in his head or his heart. Friends told the Times he was struggling financially, had poured his savings into the paper, had moved into his offices with his cat. He was 59.

Even as the news broke this week, weathered men and women in city-required reflective traffic vests stood on Tampa street corners holding up the latest edition of the Epoch. A member of the City Council that passed the panhandling ban paused during a busy meeting to remember Sharpe.

"I just felt that he wanted to do right by Tampa," said Yvonne Yolie Capin, who had known him for two years. "And I will miss him."

And people at the Epoch say they will try to keep going with the story Bill Sharpe started, the one about a man with a plan to help.

Sue Carlton: Missing the man with a plan to help the homeless 04/06/12 [Last modified: Friday, April 6, 2012 10:18pm]
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