It was an idea that Whitley O’Connor, executive director of The Curbside Chronicle and a self-proclaimed “social entrepreneur,” has seen benefit the destitute of many cities throughout the U.S.
“It’s not a new idea, but we’ve put a new spin on it,” he said.
O’Connor learned about the strategy while he was attending college at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. That city has the largest street paper in North America, The Contributor.
“It made me start looking at what the homeless community was like in Oklahoma City, and what I saw was that it was more stigmatized. People didn’t nearly respect the homeless as much here. I started looking at why that was,” he said.
Gradually, he realized that he never saw people panhandling in Nashville, but that it was nearly impossible to miss spotting vendors for The Contributor.
“Instead of panhandling, they’re selling the paper, and people tend to respect them more,” he said. “It’s a safer environment to interact with the homeless and to learn their story and talk to them, because they’re trained to be friendly, they’re trained to be non-aggressive in their sales tactics. They’ll stand on the corner and wave and smile, and you start to learn their names, because you see them as you’re going to and from work.”
O’Connor contacted Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance, who was more than eager to help out. Straughan was impressed by the success of The Contributor, but he was also intrigued with how that paper had humanized the problem of homelessness by “putting a face to it.”
“We all have a stereotype of who the homeless are in our heads. It’s typically that guy standing on the street corner, maybe talking to people who aren’t there. He looks pretty dirty, maybe even a little scary. There’s some accuracy in that stereotype, but it’s actually less than 5 percent of OKC’s homeless population,” said Straughan.
“Most of our homeless population are folks who have fallen on hard times. The paper can sort of break down that barrier between suits like me and people that haven’t been as fortunate as we have.”
The Curbside Chronicle has been in business for only a little more than a month, and both O’Connor and Straughan already are hearing success stories from local vendors The way it works is this: A vendor will buy a paper at 75 cents — the first 15 are free, mind you — and sell them for $2 apiece around the city, keeping the profit for themselves.
Curbside articles are written by freelance professionals and homeless people alike. After seeing popular street papers in the U.K. that took more of a “for profit, pop culture” angle in their coverage, O’Connor opted to merge stories of local issues and culture.
In addition to articles about sustainable housing and commentary on Abercrombie & Fitch, Curbside has also covered the Plaza District’s Pie Junkie eatery and featured an “onion-burger showdown.”
“We try to cover cool local stories and cool local people that are interesting, that the community will want to read about while covering homeless issues as well,” O’Connor said.
“We want to change the way people think about homelessness in Oklahoma City.”
Hey! Read This: