Median Income

Homeless people hawk three different publications on curbs all over the Valley. What's brought about the proliferation of street sheets, and who, if anyone, benefits?

Waiting for the Grapevine.Squaw Peak Parkway is a good place to sell papers because of the shade underneath and all those working people who drive it.

The motorists are potential customers who spill into idle formation as they wait to head east on Thomas Road where Chris and Michelle, the resident homeless couple, have their spot staked out. The commuters get caught at the light and Chris will brandish an issue of Grapevine or View Points, and some of them roll up their windows and lock their doors, and still others stare purposely straight ahead, like no one's there.

This corner is known as one of the city's prime selling spots and supports other regulars--a carnival worker taking a year off the circuit, a haggard Vietnam vet, a turbocharged wild man who flies around on his bicycle. Then there's Jerry, a onetime auto mechanic who mostly works the peak hours and otherwise kicks back and watches. He's 41, a guy with an easy grin who, if he tried a little harder, wouldn't have to be out here peddling papers and peeing in the bushes. He looks like a strung-out Tom Petty and he's living like a refugee, waiting for his girlfriend and her kids to Greyhound back from Connecticut so the two of them can combine their disability checks, blow this newspaper stand and start a new life in Avondale.

Today, Jerry watches Chris and Michelle trundle their orange shopping cart across Thomas Road from the south. Everyone camps on that side because it's cleaner. The cart, piled high with boxes and bags and clothes and a Thermos, rumbles onto the dirt and into the rocks and the broken glass. The two set up camp, foam pads and a sleeping bag, near several boulders, a practiced routine.

It's 8 a.m., and new issues of the Grapevine are supposed to arrive sometime between 8:40 and 9:10.

Homeless people like these have sold the Grapevine since August 1994, when publisher Joel Barr found it was a good way to distribute the paper he'd founded as a political mouthpiece. Before that it had been a matter of dropping it off in barbershops and beauty salons. Distribution by the homeless was cheap and effective, and it turned out to be a boon for the vendors, too, a lot better than just sitting there holding a sign.

The concept has now birthed or helped launch two other street-corner newspapers in the Valley, while at least one other existing publication has adopted the idea. But "selling the Grapevine" is the term that has taken hold in public lingo, whether a vendor is selling Barr's paper or one of the others.

"You can't disgrace the Grapevine, because it was the first paper in town," Michelle says as she stares into a compact mirror and applies a layer of lipstick to start the day. "[Barr] genuinely cares about the homeless."

Well, actually, he cares about the people who sell his paper, who happen to be homeless. And he'll make a lot of noise and fire off fervent faxes to police chiefs and the ACLU when he feels their (his) First Amendment rights are being infringed upon. He'll banner their stories of harassment across the paper.

According to state figures, there are 6,000 homeless people in Maricopa County. A very visible few, maybe 150 or so, are peddling publications. There are the Grapevine, View Points and Southwest Solutions, which together offer a mixture of social diatribe, philosophy, conspiracy theories and health news. At least one already-established paper, the Omega New Age Directory, has also joined the street-sales market.

Are any of them worth reading? That's a matter of opinion.
A better question is whether any of them are doing anyone--the homeless or the publishers--any good.What distinguishes the Grapevine from about two dozen other papers hawked by homeless across the U.S. is that its benefit to the residence-challenged was purely accidental. Publications like Chicago's Streetwise, Seattle's Real Change, San Francisco's Homeless Times and the mother of them all, the now-defunct Street News in New York, were intended to aid the homeless population.For Phoenix's Joel Barr, the ready-made labor force materialized to him one day when he saw a sign-toting guy seeking work.

At the outset, the reviews for the homeless-sold Grapevine were glorious. Selling the paper infused the homeless with dignity, people said; it gave them self-worth. The signs reading "Will Work for Food" and "Hungry--Please Help" started to disappear.

"They're doing something to make a living, instead of waiting for a handout," says Pat Snyder of Computer Renaissance, which donated computer equipment to the Grapevine in return for free advertising. "The way I look at it, the homeless people are trying to make an honest buck. It's better than the alternative. It's not the greatest paper in the world, but at least it's something."

Richard Scott of Everything Earthly, an ecology-minded Tempe store that advertises in the Grapevine, is more impressed: "I'm convinced the mainstream media are intimidated in a lot of instances not to run information they know of. So from that standpoint, I think the Grapevine strikes out in a little more courageous direction."

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