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?

The two competed for several weeks by publishing separate issues of the Grapevine, and Butler finally abdicated, convinced Barr would eventually run his operation into the ground. Except now she's out $62,000, and Barr is back where he started, living in someone else's home and publishing the paper by the seat of his pants. Or probably somebody else's pants.

The debacle left some unpaid bills in its wake, and a former printer is about to catapult a big one owed by Barr to a collections agency. "They're at the end of their string," says the Phoenix printer, who declined to be named. "It just boils down to them being a new publication and trying to save themselves at the expense of one printer after another. It's probably my fault for letting it go as long as it did."

But Barr, some say, always was the visionary type, big on ideas, low on details. "They have a tremendous potential to do good in this community and they just can't get it together," says Catt Foy, a former writer and ad sales representative for the paper. "They're totally scattered. They have no organization of any kind."

"Joel is real dedicated," says Sat Khalsa, who resigned in September after four months as the Grapevine's distribution manager. He remains supportive of the paper's mission, but was unable to survive on what it was able to pay him. "It's gonna be okay. There's not big money being socked away, I can tell you that."

Barr says expenses, which include printing, communications, drivers and utilities, run $1,500 to $2,000 a week, which are ominous figures stacked up against the $1,000 drawn from the 10,000 papers sold to vendors weekly plus minimal advertising revenue.

"It's still alive," he says, adding: "We have a mission and a purpose. Everything else falls in as Plan B behind that."Leigh Butler's new monthly newspaper, Southwest Solutions, burst onto the scene in May with a modest circulation of 15,000 and stories about Newt Gingrich, Bo Gritz and mental disability among the homeless.Butler is a refined, mild-mannered administrator and divorcee who addresses her readers with cheerful familiarity. In dealing with the media, however, she is clumsily cagey. She says she took Barr into her home and supported him and got burned for it. "So many people told me to be careful. I said, 'He has never made demands on me.' I was happy to buy him clothes. I was able to transform his physical appearance. I have a degree in nutrition, so I knew certain things."

She says she turned Barr from a country bumpkin with bird legs and love handles into a sophisticated guy with a great beard.Butler contends she owns the rights to the Grapevine name, having registered it herself with the state late last year. The fight is not yet over. She'd sue Barr if she thought there was more than a few coins inside the piggy bank. She was quoted once to that effect, but, to her annoyance, the comment read that she hadn't sued because Barr didn't "have a vessel to urinate in."

"I told [the reporter] that the reason was because he did not have a vessel in which to urinate," Butler says. "It killed me to be quoted with improper grammar."

Southwest Solutions contains much of the political polemic and parable common to the Grapevine, but includes a dose of health news. Stories are written by Butler or editor Lyle Nordin or culled from freelancers around the country:

"The Christian lawyers are coming." "Opposition to reasonable wages comes from the realms of greed." "Phoenix has a well-earned reputation as the seat of a wacko state legislature."

Butler, however, feels advertisers are scared away by the stigma of homelessness--the dirty, unshaven, beer-on-the-breath stereotype--and has limited her use of such distribution.

There are plenty of vendors out there, says Ron Paulson, the paper's computer systems manager. But they're not necessarily the kind of people you want selling for you. Southwest Solutions scrutinizes potential vendors for manner and appearance, "just like any other job," Paulson says. Some of them, in fact, may not even be homeless.So in contrast to the ragbag sales force of the Grapevine, Butler's paper is marketed by a gourmet blend of vendors on corners from Camelback Road northward. So far, the paper is awash in color and has a page on the Internet, a feature of which she and Paulson are especially proud. It also sports more advertising than the Grapevine, especially in the health niche Butler is trying to fill--doctors and dentists and vitamin pushers. But they say Southwest Solutions has yet to be profitable.Circulation, Paulson says, currently 5,000, could balloon to 30,000 with a "pretty major story" and the help of an interested financier when the October issue is published around midmonth. But neither he nor Butler would provide any more details."It used to be a puny, little newspaper," Paulson says. "Now our tentacles have gone out. We're still small--but things are gonna change overnight."Michael O'Barr, a graveyard-shift AlliedSignal tester of engines and gearboxes, was a driver for the Grapevine in February when Butler raised the price of the 50-paper bundles to $10. The number of vendors taking the paper from him, he recalls, plunged from 27 to just a dozen. "They disappeared into the woodwork," he says, "and I haven't seen 'em since."Still, O'Barr's loyalties were with Butler when the pummeling publishers parted--he didn't like the way Barr had excoriated the Phoenix Police Department for alleged harassment of vendors without getting the department's side of things.

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