It’s a little after 10 a.m. on the Monday after New Year’s Day, a national holiday for most people in the Tampa Bay area, but just another busy day in the new life of Bill Sharpe. The South Tampa resident’s public profile has been raised tremendously over the past couple of months with the publication of his street newspaper by and for the homeless, called Tampa Epoch. On this morning, as he does every Monday, he’s addressing a handful of people on the second floor of the Salvation Army building on North Florida Avenue about the do’s and don’t’s of selling the Epoch.
Earlier he had spent over an hour and a half (as he does every day except Sunday) with an assistant in front of the Army-Navy surplus store on Tampa Street. That’s where he distributes copies of the paper for those ready to go out and sell that day, making sure they are equipped with a photo ID and reflective vest to go out and pound the pavement. It’s a plan that he worked on for months prior to the recent City Council vote to ban panhandling six days a week except for newspaper sales.
“As you go out and meet people, you gotta remember the first and most important role,” he tells the small gathering. “You’re not a panhandler anymore. You’re a small business person … that means you gotta look like a small business person,” he adds, telling them to stand straight and look people in the eye, to be aggressive but obviously not too aggressive.
For nearly an hour Sharpe provides a pep talk on how they can be successful, how the public perceives them (“there’s a tremendous belief out there that you guys do a lot of drugs and drink beer before the afternoon”), and then fields questions about the work.
Although homelessness in the U.S. began to explode in many of the biggest cities in the late 1980s, it’s only in the past few years, aided by the Great Recession, that those problems have impacted the Tampa Bay area in a sizable way. Controversies arose first in St. Petersburg, where police destruction of homeless tents made national headlines five years ago, and over the past year and a half in Tampa, where the issue dominated public debate, particularly in last winter’s mayoral and City Council races.
That agonizing debate saw the Council take several votes on the matter without coming to a consensus on an outright panhandling ban. That’s despite the fact that of the 33 people on the ballot last March, all but two of them (Charlie Miranda and Frank Reddick) had supported a ban of some sort or another.
Bill Sharpe was paying attention the entire time. Best known as the editor/publisher of the monthly South Tampa Community News (formerly the Davis Islands Community News) and the man behind sohotampa.com, a site about all things South Tampa, Sharpe learned last year about street newspapers. After the Council passed its ordinance, he decided that he would publish such a paper.
Both issues of the Epoch have featured reporting by and about the homeless, including information about churches, cafes and emergency shelters that provide meals and other services. But the content isn’t exclusively related to the topic; a full-page feature in the January issue (a reprint from South Tampa Community News) covered Paraskevi, a two-day conference on the paranormal being held this weekend by Tampa Ghost Watchers, an organization in which Sharpe is heavily involved. Vendors sell the paper for $1, keeping 75 cents of the proceeds and returning a quarter back to Sharpe.
There are approximately three dozen such papers in the country, but some local residents initially reacted as if they’d never heard of such a thing, and charged that Sharpe was using a “loophole” in the law to exploit the situation.
Such critics include Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who told CL last month that he didn’t see the paper having much of a future. “There’s not a demand for it,” he said, and slammed those advertising in it, saying he couldn’t imagine why they would want to “contribute to the denigration of our public spaces.” An anti-Epoch Facebook page was created, and panhandling critics such as neighborhood activist Spencer Kass told Jodie Tillman of the Tampa Bay Times that he didn’t think “it’s going to be in anybody’s business interest to advertise in that paper.”
Such sentiments are somewhat alien to Tasha French, the director of The Contributor, the monthly homeless paper out of Nashville. She says, “We’ve been incredibly blessed” by the community, and the paper now has a monthly run of 100,000 copies.
“It just takes awhile for the community to really understand that this is not panhandling, that this is a flexible source of income for people who need a source of income. They are selling a valid product.” French says the better the content, the more legitimacy the paper will get.
Sharpe said he consulted with French, as well as with Sean Coronie, who publishes the Homeless Voice in Fort Lauderdale, in the months leading up to the Epoch’s Nov. 15 debut.
When asked about the criticism he encountered, Sharpe admits that he’s never dealt with such anger before.
He closely monitors what people say about him, and says that in the comments section of articles originally written about the Epoch in the Times or Tribune, “80 to 90 percent hated me.” He now says public opinion has swayed to the other side (a story published in last week’s Times showed sentiments to be roughly 60-40 in his favor).
Sharpe strongly disagrees with those who say he has exploited a “loophole” in the law allowing him to sell newspapers, saying, “it’s a provision of the law.” That it is.
The previous attorney for the City, Chip Fletcher, told the Council that it could not make exceptions in the law. That meant if the board were to pass a law, firefighters holding boot drives couldn’t be exempted, and neither could newspaper hawkers; St. Petersburg’s law against soliciting on busy streets, passed in 2010, allows for no such exemptions.
But after the Pasco County Commission carved out an exception for newspaper hawkers last year, Councilman Harry Cohen urged city attorneys to revisit the possibility of a similar measure in Tampa that would allow sales of Sunday papers, which are often sold by people for whom the job is the only means of support.
That’s when supporters of Tampa’s twice weekly black local paper, the Florida-Sentinel Bulletin, said they were being discriminated against, and Council members Frank Reddick and Yolie Capin said they wouldn’t support the partial ban unless newspapers could be sold every day of the week.
Some observers worry that allowing newspaper sales on the streets could harm the hopes of the Tampa establishment to have the street corners free of any people as the Republican National Convention rolls into Tampa in late August. Might a repeal of the newspaper exemption be in order?
Councilman Harry Cohen says that won’t happen. “It’s not on my radar, “ he told CL in December. “I feel the streets are definitely much more orderly than they were prior to November,” and says people recognize the change and appreciate it.
(Full disclosure: This reporter contributed $25 to the production of the first copy of the Tampa Epoch).