Project 50, No. 8: The Bridge Newspaper
Project 50 is a weekly feature on a Mid-South nonprofit that will go on through 2014. I hope that you decide to get involved with at least one organization you hear about this year and put your love for Memphis to work. For this week's Project 50 edition, I want to tell you about The Bridge, the world's only student-run non-profit street newspaper.
The Bridge is a monthly Memphis newspaper that features stories and artwork by people with experiences of homelessness, people who then sell the paper for a profit. It's a non-profit organization founded and organized by Rhodes College students.
The paper works like this: people with experiences of homelessness can apply to become a vendor. After training sessions and certification, they purchase papers for 25 cents and sell them for a dollar. Vendors keep all the profits, which many of them use to pay the entry fee for a shelter.
Linda and Joe
My conversation with Linda and Joe turned into a slightly larger conversation about homelessness, how people perceive "the homeless" and what it's like to stay in shelters. I'm including those parts of the interview even if they're not explicitly talking about The Bridge, because I think it proves how important The Bridge is to Memphis, and how our perceptions of our fellow Memphians can affect our city as a whole. Enough of my gabbering. Here's what Linda and Joe said:
Holly: When did you get started selling The Bridge and why?
Joe: I started in May. I was here [at St. Mary’s] having the Wednesday hot breakfast that they serve. I needed some way to earn money to pay for staying in a shelter. So I came down and checked it out. It's gotten easier to sell as more people know about it. I remember at the very first, I was having to work really long hours because nobody knew what it was.
Holly: What is the training like?
Joe: It's some short meetings. Most of the selling is basically on your own. [The trainers] give you a slip that has different places listed that are good places to sell.
Linda: They tell you where we're allowed to sell, where we're not allowed to sell. They sort of have a sales pitch that you can learn and practice with each other. Then we get a vest to wear that says "The Bridge" and a name tag, a badge that shows that we're certified and have been through training.
Holly: What are some of the best places to sell? Where can I buy the paper?
Joe: Well, during the winter, a lot of your events are closed. During the summer, a lot of your farmer's markets, even outdoor events are good.
Linda: The Levitt Shell is a really good one, and all of the festivals.
Holly: What have people asked you as you're out selling?
Linda: A lot of them tell me, "You don't look like you're homeless." And then I have to ask them, "What does homeless look like?" It's like they don't really believe that I am homeless. I've been homeless going on three years. You know, I was very successful before that. It's not like I've been homeless for 15 years and living on the street-streets, so maybe I don't quite look like their mental image–and it was my image of homelessness before I become homeless, too–that they must be dirty and stinky and have torn up, dirty clothes and all that. So I don't take offense because I used to be just like that, too. People don't know that it's changed. I was homeless at one shelter, the Missionaries of Charity, with a girl who had a chemical engineering degree. It's hitting everybody. There are so many baby boomers and people my age who are coming into the shelters and I think that's really sad. They've lost their retirement, they've lost their job and then lost their home.
They also ask me how I became homeless. My story is that I had a medical catastrophe. I was at Ole Miss in engineering school, fully funded with scholarships and grants and honor student, and then I got sick and no one could figure out what was wrong with me. I had to stop going to school because I couldn't walk between classes and couldn't remember things. I slowly lost my home and furnishings, and my car went last year. I'm in transitional housing now. I do have a space that's all mine. It may be a small space, but that's ok. I have key! (laughs) To have a key after three years, you have no idea what that means. I kept looking at it and kept locking my door.
Joe: I've been asked how I became homeless several times. I just tell them. My job ended and then I came back here from North Dakota and I didn't have a place to stay. Actually, [the search for employment] has gotten better. Through the winter I've been able to make enough so I haven't had to sell the paper as much. I still have been going down a couple days a week downtown to sell, except for the last two weeks, because I've been working on the days that I would normally go downtown. Actually, I'll know tomorrow if I should have a full-time job. Possibly starting on Monday.
Holly: How has The Bridge helped you?
Joe: Without the paper, nothing would have been possible; you have to be able to have a place to sleep, and to take care of yourself, in order to get back to work. That's what the paper has done for me. It's made it so that I earned enough money to pay for shelter. I've been in a halfway house, a dorm-type setting. You have your own area and can come and go.
Linda: At a lot of homeless shelters, there's no room for you to take more than a bag full of clothes, so you lose a lot.
Joe: At a shelter, you have to take everything with you unless you have a locker. So if you don't have a locker, you can't even go into a place and apply for a job without carrying all this stuff.
Linda: You don't have clean clothes or take showers if you don't have a place to stay. It's really strange that Memphis only has one free shelter. The Missionaries of Charity the only absolutely free shelter, It's not for men, just for women. I don't think there are any free ones for men.The other ones are from $6 up to $13 a day. And homeless people are supposed to come up with that.
Joe: Somewhere you can get four days a month for free. You can't find a job and get a check within four days.
Linda: I'm taking a class at the Exchange Club called "Getting Ahead in a Just Getting By World" where we see where most of our time is spent. Through that I could really see that 60 – 75 percent of my mental energy was spent on wondering 'where am I gonna sleep tomorrow night or next week?' And you don't have time to improve yourself because you spent all your time either trying to scrape up the money to pay for another night in the shelter, or find a friend who has told you before that if worse comes to worst you can sleep on a mattress on my floor or something.
It just takes up all your energy, and then you're so exhausted and when you find a place you just want to think about nothing, because you're going to have to start it all over again the next day. So getting in stable shelter is an almost have-to before can straighten out the other problems in your life, like employment. The paper has been so good for me, because I have a neuromuscular disease so I can't stand or sit for very long at a time. So the paper lets me work where I can make a good amount of money in three or four hours.
Holly: There are papers like The Bridge in many other cities, but I heard this was the only student-run one. Isn't that awesome?
Linda: The [Rhodes] students are so great, they donate all their time and energy and I know a lot of other resources, too. They are really, really great. At first I kept saying "they're not even from Memphis, why would they care about me being homeless in Memphis?" But they do.
Official mission statement: The Bridge aims to “bridge the gap” between homeless and sheltered by giving a voice and sustainable income to the homeless community.
How you can help:
– Buy a paper when you see a vendor, and tell a friend to do the same.