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By Ray Stern
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O'Barr had also talked with vendors. He'd seen the change in their attitudes once they held up an actual product instead of a sign. But he knew a lot of people were buying the Grapevine and throwing it away, or not taking the paper because they believed Barr's politics were too radical. Still, they wanted to help.
O'Barr asked folks what they wanted to see in the paper. They suggested stories by or about the homeless themselves. When Butler discontinued her version of the Grapevine, the burly, whiskered driver found himself with vendors hungry for something to sell and, with the help of a friend, decided it was time to start his own publication.
He puts it together at home on a computer in his son's room and has been slow getting it off the ground, but so far, vendors like its blend of philosophy, pep talk and weird science. One reader, O'Barr says, "called it sophmoronic, which pleased me because Ithought it was freshmanistic."
Many homeless, he says, are at the point where they cannot recover without help from somebody else, and they have to realize that when the help comes, if it comes, they have to use it to its fullest. He mentions this early one morning while delivering the second issue of View Points to nine locations in Phoenix and in Mesa, where he is based. He does this after a full night of work at AlliedSignal. The vendors meet him in bank parking lots and fast-food restaurants.He remembers a former vendor, another Vietnam vet whose combat duty included the gunning down of three encroaching Vietnamese, one of whom turned out to be a pregnant woman. The guy flipped out and he was out on the streets a long, long time before he finally put the gun to his head. O'Barr just got a letter from the guy's mother."He couldn't get rid of the demons," O'Barr says. "These guys, some of them have real demons. That's why they drink, to get rid of them."
Whenever he goes out and sees the older guys, he says, he wonders how many of them are in similar situations. "When they talk," he says, "I listen."
O'Barr says Joel Barr offered him a deal, to distribute View Points inside the Grapevine for shared printing costs and a piece of the profits. He refused, saying it wouldn't do him much good. He says Barr is "the kind of guy who, when he says one thing, his actions tell you another. When I started [my paper], he said, 'That's great--I love the diversity.' But now he's mad at me.
"He thinks I'm going after his paper, but I'm not. The Grapevine is doing fine. I'm not trying to go head to head, because they have their market. Mine is more family-oriented. There's language in the Grapevine I would be ashamed to have children read. What I'd like to do is have parents have their kids involved; the more kids learn about the homeless situation, the less they'll be likely to drop out of school, and not to get into that kind of predicament."
Joel Barr says he has nothing against his former driver. "I guess I was hurt at the outset," he says. "I had given him the right to distribute the Grapevine, and for him to begin a newspaper and distribute it in lieu of the Grapevine, I felt, was underhanded, a little dishonest. But I respect the rights of the First Amendment. ... The Grapevine has spawned at least two other papers. The results are good. You'll know a tree by its roots, so to speak."
What's going to happen, Barr says, is that by trying to do it all himself, Mike O'Barr will spread himself too thin. He won't be able to meet the needs of vendors. When customers, who typically buy from the same location, become impatient waiting for the next issue, vendors will buy the product that moves the fastest.
"The whole essence of getting it done is in the delivery system," Barr says. "Consistency is of tremendous importance. Vendors will want the paper they can rely on, and that's the Grapevine."Some homeless advocates claim that petty crime downtown dropped significantly once the Grapevine began employing the homeless as street-corner sales reps. Sergeant Mike Torres, a Phoenix Police Department spokesman, says that's nonsense, that the crime rate hasn't changed.Newspaper vendors are just a drop in the bucket. But, if anything, street-corner vending has dispersed dozens of homeless from the central-city core; it pays to set up camp near your vending site so you don't lose it, and people are sleeping under the freeways, in bushes, in parking lots until the morning comes and it's time to sell again. What will happen to all those folks as the Super Bowl nears, as government officials become more image-conscious, remains to be seen.
But is quality really negligible? If people don't like the product, will Phoenix's generosity last?
Dennis Burke of Central Arizona Shelter Services says, "Our concern, long-range, is that those papers have value so that they're not just a subterfuge for a handout. When it crosses that threshold, it becomes a real way to make a living. So we're anxious to see those newspapers grow and prosper."