Oklahoma City 'Street Paper' Provides Opportunity for the Homeless

November 2, 2015
By Steve Shepelwich, Senior Community Development Advisor


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“People used to cross the street when they would see me. Now my customers come to me for a paper,” says Robert, a vendor for The Curbside Chronicle in Oklahoma City. Selling The Curbside Chronicle has helped Robert, who formerly was homeless, find both housing and respect.

The Curbside Chronicle is a publication with a special mission in Oklahoma City.

“We want to bridge the gap between the homeless and non-homeless, and develop new, positive interactions,” says Ranya O’Connor, the publication’s co-founder and director.

The Curbside Chronicle, which describes itself as a magazine and as a street paper, is pursuing this mission through a unique business model. It provides reporting and award-winning design to a discerning, young and upscale market. It is distributed by a network of street vendors recruited from among the homeless in the city’s streets and shelters.

Articles in The Curbside Chronicle focus on life in downtown Oklahoma City. About half of the content is of general interest, such as reviews of new food trucks, news about upcoming festivals, local arts and cultural life. This is rounded out with articles exploring issues affecting the city’s homeless that are designed to increase awareness among readers and provide a tool for change. Many articles are written by the homeless.

About 30 vendors actively sell the paper and O’Connor says she “would love to have 300 in place selling throughout the city.” Most vendors face high barriers to gaining employment in other settings, among them mental health issues, criminal records and limited basic education and work skills. For many who have experienced long-term homelessness and isolation, selling the paper presents a rare opportunity for positive interactions with others.

The Curbside Chronicle recruits homeless individuals through outreach on the street and in local shelters. It trains new recruits on soft skills related to interacting with customers, setting sales goals and planning where to sell the magazines.

A new vendor receives the first 15 magazines for free to sell for the cover price of $2. The vendor can use this initial stake to buy more magazines for 75 cents each. Profits are used by the vendor to buy more magazines and support their financial goals.

The Curbside Chronicle meets with vendors to discuss issues common to any small business—time management, scheduling, setting goals, sales techniques and group dynamics. They also review magazine articles so vendors can discuss each edition with customers.

Typically, after about two months of selling, vendors start to get into their stride. Several vendors have turned the work into steady income. Fifteen have moved into stable housing. For some, it has been a bridge to employment in retail, construction and landscaping services.

“I make good money when I work,” Robert said. “I use Curbside to help pay my utilities, food and other necessities. I’m getting more comfortable every day.”

O’Connor said that after a little more than two years in circulation, The Curbside Chronicle is closer to its goal of being a self-supporting business. It currently prints about 8,000 copies of the bimonthly publication and plans to become a monthly in January.

“Our social enterprise model gives us the ability to finance our self through the sales of The Curbside Chronicle and advertisements. This frees up the limited grant money directed to homeless causes to go to other organizations serving the homeless,” O’Connor said.

In addition to being recognized on the streets of Oklahoma City, The Curbside Chronicle also is gaining international recognition. Earlier this year, the publication received the 2015 International Network of Street Papers (INSP) Award for Best Cover and was a finalist in the Best Cultural Feature, Best Photo, and Best Design categories. These annual awards are presented by the INSP, representing 115 papers in 35 nations.

“Maybe we are ambitious and maybe we are risky, but we are certainly dedicated to bridging the gap between homeless and non-homeless people in Oklahoma City,” O’Connor said. “At The Curbside Chronicle, we give the homeless an opportunity to voice their opinions, gain employment and ultimately break the cycle of poverty.”

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