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VOL. 35 | NO. 5 | Friday, February 4, 2011

Finding home, one paper at a time

Homeless, formerly homeless earn $1M in 2010 hawking The Contributor

By Tim Ghianni

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Ted Creasy finds joy, pride and rent by peddling newspapers at roadside on a raw and rainy winter’s afterfnoon.

“This weather is actually a good day for business,” the 53-year-old says, smiling into the northbound traffic as it eases past his Brentwood location on Franklin Road between Corky’s and Old Hickory Boulevard.

“People kinda feel sorry for you, standing out here in this, and they’ll stop and buy a Contributor,” he says, turning to retrieve dry copies of Nashville’s homeless newspaper from his red backpack.

A few miles away, near the foot of Belmont Boulevard, Larry Burrus, 61, steps from the sidewalk to exchange a copy of The Contributor and happy banter for $1 from one of his regular customers.

“Maybe the only smile they see all day,” he says, tucking the buck away and waving farewell as the car accelerates down Shackleford Road.

“You gotta be clean, smell good, smile,” he says. “And you gotta like people and being outdoors.”

Those attributes and his generally cheery disposition have been enough to make Burrus a success story. Contributor vendors who sell 300 copies a month are allowed to stake out sales turf.

And this stretch at the edge of the Lipscomb University campus belongs to Burrus.

“I can sell 300 papers easily,” he says as another driver flags him down with a dollar bill.

These aren’t uncommon success stories: Issues of The Contributor are going quickly as Nashville’s street newspaper gains larger acceptance.

A year ago, The Contributor’s circulation was about 12,000 copies a month. Now 120,000 issues of the tabloid-sized newspaper – peddled on street corners by trained vendors who are or were formerly homeless – are sold monthly, says Tasha French, executive director of the 3-year-old newspaper.

“Vendors begin by going through training,” French says of the operation, headquartered at Downtown Presbyterian Church. After that two-hour session, “we start them out with 15 free papers. They sell them for a dollar each, plus tips. Then they come back and buy more for a quarter apiece.”

The vendors keep the 75 cents profit, plus any tips. But there are strict regulations against asking for more money or panhandling in any way. If a customer wants to throw in an extra dollar or two, that’s up to him or her.

The growth is obvious. A few months ago, most Contributor salespeople would be found along the main thoroughfares and exit ramps in urban Nashville. Now, at the urging of French and her cohorts, many vendors have moved from the city’s core.

“They are more than welcome to travel outside the city,” French says, adding that it helps to have the vendors spread out rather than concentrated in one area.

The move’s been good for business, according to Creasy, who with his pal “Joe” have more or less claimed the little swath along the Williamson-Davidson county line.

Six days a week, usually beginning in the late morning, the two ride out from the house they share in East Nashville, park at a Shell and peddle their newspapers. Joe works near the filling station, while Creasy totes his wares to the grassy area north of Corky’s.

“In this kind of weather you can make $100-$150 a day,” says Creasy, cold rain pelting his sunglasses and “RCA Street Team” baseball cap.

He reaches into the pocket of his gray hoodie to rescue a Carlton cigarette. Bending into the wind, he fires it up and takes a long, slow drag.

“This is about my only addiction now,” he says, admitting that problems with alcohol and drugs are what led to him being out here instead of living with one of the two wives he’s had or with the mothers of his two children.

“I got a daughter 34 and a 19-year-old son,” he says, trying to protect his smoke from the needles of cold rain. “Neither of them are from those marriages. I’m not a playboy, but I guess it puts me in that category.”

He laughs, then looks up as one of his Lexus-driving customers signals that he wants to buy a copy.

“I graduated from Cohn High School and then I went to Belmont, where I majored in music business,” Creasy says after stepping back from the highway.

His was the prototypical Music City dream; he was going to be a successful songwriter.

“My last year at Belmont was 1983. I became an alcoholic and lost it all, marriages, umpteen girlfriends, everything. I blamed it on everything but what it really was: the alcohol.”

He says he’s not had a drink in more than 11 years.

Like many who peddle The Contributor, Creasy’s no longer homeless.

“Last year we did a survey and found out that of the vendors who had been with us for three months or more, about 30 percent had gotten housing,” French says.

Those successes fuel enthusiasm for the newspaper’s goal “to create a product, to create a source of income for the homeless and formerly homeless individuals, and to create a community between customers and vendors,” French says.

Editor Andrew Krinks, 24, a Vanderbilt divinity student, says the breaking down of barriers “has been really exciting to watch and be a part of. Vendors have formed a unique bond with the average Nashville citizen.”

“We do hear people say ‘I’ve got my vendor that I buy The Contributor from,” says Krinks, who came to work at the paper a couple of years ago after becoming involved in homeless issues during undergrad studies at Lipscomb University. “That loyalty is pretty cool.”

Such loyalty is displayed by the regulars who keep Burrus busy at the edge of the Lipscomb campus, where he has become a welcome and welcomed sight.

“This here is better than anything,” says Burrus, who was homeless for most of the last dozen years. “I like to see people.”

Those same people have responded in kind, providing Burrus income enough that for the last four or five months. “I’ve been sharing an apartment with more Contributor people.”

Krinks says Nashville residents perhaps became more aware of the issue of homelessness after the May flood washed away the Tent City encampment along the Cumberland, and much of the homeless population began turning up in emergency shelters and on the evening news.

Creasy, a dry-waller and construction worker, also was a flood castoff. But he didn’t lose a spot in Tent City. He lost his apartment.

“I’d been living in a little efficiency on Dickerson Road. But I was arrested for phone harassment (in a feud with a fellow he thought was a friend) and was in jail during the flood.”

The flood damaged his apartment building and, he says, his belongings were put in storage while he was in jail. By the time he got out, most of the valuables – “my laptop, my jewelry, things I could sell” – were gone.

His guitars, a Gibson Les Paul and a Harmony acoustic, were OK. But they weren’t for sale. After all, he maintains his dreams.

Yet, without a home, he hit the streets, feeling “a little embarrassed.”

“I’d never been homeless in my life,” he says. “I’m not a homeless-type person. I can’t sleep under bridges. I can’t sleep at the mission.”

For the next four months, he did both, while also frequenting Room in the Inn.

He was determined not to remain homeless. He didn’t want to become accustomed to charity. The Contributor, which can be a successful venture if a vendor is willing to work hard, attracted him.

In October, he began his newspaper sales career. “I started right down there at 25th and West End,” he says, noting he used to be a regular at nearby clubs before he hit his sour patch. “The Rock Block, the Gold Rush, Exit In … that was home for me,” he says.

He relocated to Brentwood at the suggestion of the guy who since has become his roommate.

“Joe told me you could be making good money out here with The Contributor,” he says. “A lot of people give me $5 if they have it.

“These are good people. They tell me they are glad to see me out here trying to do something and not just standing on the interstate ramp panhandling. I could never beg for money like that guy,” he says, eyes focusing on the nearby ramp off I-65 South, where a panhandler – not a Contributor vendor – regularly stations himself.

“Most days I’ll sell 30-60 newspapers,” Creasy says.

His profits go toward a more stable life. He pays Joe rent as well as helps with the utility bills.

“I pay for my own food and for my cigarettes. They’ll kill me someday if I don’t give them up,” he says, shaking another Carlton from the pack.

“I like the idea of being my own boss,” he adds.

“I had hit rock bottom, but doing this is bringing my thinking back cleaner. I’m still in the process of finding a little serenity in my life.”

Perhaps the experience of selling the newspaper as a way of escaping the street will give him enough serenity – and real-life subject matter – to chase his dream of making a living selling his songs.

“I’ve written more than 100,” he says, adding that he never has aggressively pushed them. “I used to be scared of getting a door slammed in my face.” Not so much anymore.

That Contributor-fueled self-confidence is a byproduct editor Krinks celebrates, saying one of his greatest joys is “seeing the way it’s affecting our vendors, whether the tangible level of getting housing or getting married or getting into better situations.”

Lipscomb-area vendor Burros testifies loudly to the profound impact of the little newspaper.

He moved to Nashville from Elkton, Ky., long ago, seeking a better life. He blames himself things went awry. “I was cutting grass, working with concrete, landscaping. Got into the wrong group, was using drugs. Got where wrong stuff happened.”

Now instead of running into the haze of drugs, he’s embracing clear-headed life, excited about the day’s prospects each morning when he leaves his North Nashville apartment for the bus ride to Lipscomb.

“It’s done a lot for me, The Contributor. I done bought an old, used truck and I have enough money to keep myself up. Even can put a little in the church offering every Sunday.

“And I’m clean as a button.”

Tim Ghianni spent almost 3½ decades as a columnist, editor and reporter at daily newspapers in Nashville and Middle Tennessee. Now a freelance writer and journalist-in-residence at Lipscomb University, he and his family live in Nashville’s Crieve Hall neighborhood.

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