By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
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."
Scott hasn't tracked advertising results, but is convinced dividends are reaped. "Whether or not it's profitable for business," he says, "it shows you have a concern for the community, and people can translate that however they want."
The Grapevine reads like the product of a small group of politically passionate people on a mission. The July 4 issue listed a "declaration of grievances" decrying tyranny and despotism, and it got as far as Number 6. "Due to limited space," it read, "the remaining 32 grievances will have to wait until next week."
Articles are often reprinted in subsequent editions. One recent issue, about half of which was written by Grapevine founders Philip Janes (the paper's editor), David Broome (copy editor) or Barr himself, included summaries of cases before the state Supreme Court, an essay on antiauthoritarianism by a prison inmate doing time for failure to pay taxes, stories on Gulf War Syndrome and the Sonoran Desert Museum, and a series of brief book and recording reviews.
Barr wrote a short piece on homelessness. He outlined an imaginary scenario wherein a man loses his job as the result of depression over a divorce. Drowning his sorrows at a local bar, the man loses his front teeth in a fight with bar patrons, can't afford to get them fixed, looks terrible at job interviews, falls behind on rent and ends up on the streets.
"It is in emergencies such as this that the Grapevine newspaper often comes to the rescue," Barr writes. The homeless man, he says, receives copies of the paper with a phone call. "He is now employed making cash money that can be immediately converted into food. Now, if friends or associates inquire as to his new job classification, he can always reply, 'It's just something I'm doing to help me make ends meet.'"
The story ends with the man making enough to get off the street, get those teeth fixed and land a job, finally buying a Grapevine from another down-on-his-luck vendor.
At its peak, the Grapevine was printing 60,000 copies an issue.
That was just before Barr and Leigh Butler, the sprightly woman who sank $62,000 into the operation, bifurcated bitterly in March.
This summer, Butler began publishing Southwest Solutions, a health and social issues paper with a national scope.
Then last month, a former Grapevine driver unveiled the low-budget View Points, the only one of the three papers set up specifically with homeless people in mind.
Barr figures he's got 100 to 125 homeless people pushing papers these days. Since he and Butler parted ways, circulation has fallen to about 40,000 a month, he says--5,000 issues of each paper hitting the streets twice a week. That number could double with cooler weather approaching and more vendors willing to stand outside and work.
Vendors pay $5 per 50-paper bundle, or 10cents a copy, which they then sell for 50cents apiece. Drivers often will hand over a dollar and decline the change. But sometimes they'll hand over a dollar and even decline the paper.
"I've read articles in the Grapevine a couple of times," says Margaret Quintana of the Downtown Neighborhood Learning Center, which offers free educational services, mostly to the homeless. "And my reaction was like, 'Oh, these people [writers] are angry. I don't know if I want to read that.'"
Barr and his cohorts can, indeed, be angry. Barr once chained himself to the flagpole outside the Arizona Corporation Commission to protest a ruling against him.
Some say the Grapevine should publish more stories about homelessness, or personal narratives and poetry by homeless people. Heck, even coupons for downtown luncheon specials might not be a bad idea--anything to better encourage a reader's investment.
"It has to be more than political diatribes," says Dennis Burke, director of development for Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), a downtown shelter for single men and the mentally ill.
But Patrick Tucker, a local homeless advocate, says the paper's content is negligible.
"I don't know that it matters to the people donating money," he says. "They're not going to make a judgment about the quality of the paper; they're going to be making a judgment about the person selling it, that whether they're out there selling pencils or pieces of gum, they're willing to work."Louisa Stark, a 13-year Valley homeless advocate who chairs the Phoenix Consortium for the Homeless and directs the Community Housing Partnership, knows several Grapevine vendors who report earnings of $15 to $20 for a good eight-to-ten-hour day."I was on this call-in talk show," she says, "and somebody called in and said, 'These people look strong and healthy. Why aren't they working?' Well, I think these people think they are working. How many of us would stand out in the sun in 112-degree weather with all that exhaust, making $2 an hour?"
Although there are plenty of minimum-wage jobs available, Stark says some eschew such jobs because they don't go far toward establishing a place of residence, anyway, not when the average one-bedroom apartment runs $450 a month, plus deposits. Moreover, recent changes in landlord-tenant laws and low vacancy rates favor landlords, and background checks are being done with more scrutiny, spitting more families into the streets."People may well say to themselves, 'Why not sell the Grapevine?'" she says. "'I can't find housing, anyway, so I'll live outside, work outside, work my own hours. I might make less money, but at least it's not routine.'"Advocates estimate that up to 80 percent of the homeless population has some sort of substance-abuse problem or mental-health condition. Others are victims of circumstance, but they generally don't stay homeless for long.The ones who don't go away are the ones with the problems that don't go away.
"Very often drugs or alcohol are involved somewhere," Patrick Tucker says. "They've made a poor decision. They lost their job, or got laid off. A lot of them were marginally employed to begin with. All it took was a push."
But what happens when you buy a paper? What is that vendor going to do with the money?
Same thing you do with your money--spend it on what's important at the time. When you live on the streets, squirreling cash away is risky when you could be robbed at night. So you survive, and some days are better than others. For those whose addictions have resulted in homelessness, that's often where the money goes.
"Sometimes," says Stark of the homeless consortium, "survival is a bottle of wine."Consequently, the success stories contributors would like to imagine are few and far between. Stark knows three guys who sold papers, pooled their funds, rented a room together and, with the aid of an actual address, gradually moved into more stable, higher-paying jobs and better apartments. Itwas a cooperative effort.
But more often, it seems, people become landmarks, staffing the same corner for months and leaving buyers to wonder whether they're really making any difference.
For some, earnings can be $30 to $40 on a great day, but such days are so inconsistent that extra money generally supports a "better" homeless lifestyle--maybe a guy can afford to stay in a flophouse for a night and get cleaned up, wash his clothes, smell better, sell more papers. Or maybe it just means more cigarettes, or better food.
"How somebody uses their $20 to $40 is their own business," says CASS' Dennis Burke. "But a lot of people are using their money to live more decently."
And a lot of them aren't.
"They're not getting any better," scoffs a guy who calls himself Elvis, a former homeless man who got off the streets with the help of ComCare's outpatient treatment program and now serves as a substance-abuse counselor for the agency. "They're maybe just getting a better high."
Tucker says: "I know of nobody climbing out of their situation by selling the Grapevine. I know for a fact that some people use the money just to go buy drugs; I've seen them go directly from the corner to the crack house."
And with a little Dumpster diving, maybe they're making enough to get by, long enough to fool themselves into thinking they're comfortable. But life on the streets plays strange and maddening tricks with time: Clothes age more quickly, and whatever resources a person might have, whatever goodwill remains from friends and family, rapidly erode.
Tucker: "I tell people, if you're just standing still, then you're slowly going down."Back beneath Squaw Peak Parkway, Michelle is complaining about Mike, the ex-carnival worker. The other night, the cops wrote him a ticket for selling papers in the street, and his account of that brush with the law is supposed to be in today's Grapevine, which Michelle is impatiently awaiting so she can make a sale and get her morning doughnut from the market across the street.Anyway, yesterday, Mike got into it with the Grapevine driver, and now Michelle is afraid he might have scared off the guy. On top of that, she says, Mike is always leaving his bedroll and junk over here on the north side of Thomas, and it makes the place look a mess.
"Just because I'm homeless don't mean I have to live in filth."
She sits cross-legged on the spread-out sleeping bag, blond and slightly heavy, the Stephen King paperback somebody gave her folded open to page 121. Her boyfriend Chris is all set up at the corner, a green overturned milk crate to rest on, a Big Gulp cup sitting there like a faithful dog. He's wearing the wrist brace he thinks brings him more money; Michelle thinks the brace makes no difference whatsoever. But sometimes she'll go out there with him, because a couple in need, which they are, seems to work better.
They're lucky to make $25 a day. Today's Friday, she says, payday, which means they might make enough to splurge for their weekly dinner at Jerry's restaurant a few blocks down. A decent meal, when you include tip for the waitress, runs about $12.
"I won't eat outta Dumpsters. I refuse."
She is from Utah, and Chris is from Indiana, and here they are in Phoenix, homeless. Nine weeks already. Chris lost his job, and she quit her wretched minimum-wage shift at McDonald's, which, looking back on it, was probably pretty stupid.
Her boyfriend has been pacing the sidewalk up and down without much success; only a couple of bites all morning. Of course, all they've got to peddle are old copies of View Points, and it's already ten after nine. Where are those freakin' Grapevines?Chris takes a break, returns to the makeshift camp with his Big Gulp and hunkers down on folded knees. With his long, brown hair streaming from the back of his cap, he looks like the Robert De Niro character in the movie Jackknife. His blue eyes are drenched, moist and red, as if he's been crying. He pours into the stout cup from a 32-ounce bottle of Old Milwaukee cloaked in a plastic bag.
The light turns red again and the cars queue up in eastbound formation. Chris and Michelle watch as a white Pontiac glides to a slow stop, window open, a woman's hand extended, dollar in her hand.
It seems a whole polo field away. Douglas, the war vet, is much closer, against a rock with his blue tropical vacation hat, transistor radio and an unopened bag of corn tortillas.
"Run," says Michelle.
Chris starts over there, but Douglas has already trotted to the car for the quick handout. The lady saw him first and vice versa. Chris comes back, upset. "Damn!" he says. "Because of my goddamn beer." Like he's ready to throw something. "I need a cigarette."
Michelle calms him and he reassumes the corner in a little while with his cup. She says, "Yes, he drinks, my boyfriend--he's an alcoholic--but he don't get in anybody's way."
Jerry, the Tom Petty look-alike, retires for the morning from his post peddling to traffic exiting Squaw Peak from the south. He's wearing a strikingly fresh tee shirt advertising a magazine.
"We all got one," says Michelle. Somebody came by, gave the whole clan tee shirts and jugs of water. "Everybody's wearing them."The shirts look good, an unsullied contrast to the tatters and undersize threads common out here. But they're just shirts, and they can only do so much."Put a shirt on a wino, and what do you get?" Jerry says. "A wino with a shirt." He flashes his grin.
Michelle frowns, unsure of how to take the comment. Jerry wanders to his spot by the wall and Michelle looks at him like don't come around here no more. She's got her pride. She says, "I ain't no wino."By now the torrid tale of the Grapevine is well-known--Princess (Leigh Butler) kisses frog (Joel Barr). Frog turns into prince. Princess supports prince's enterprise. Princess and prince fight over enterprise. Princess and prince break up and publish several competing versions of the Grapevine until princess washes her hands of the mess and founds her own paper, Southwest Solutions.What is not widely known, what has gone unreported until now, is that to complete an at-home interview with former flagpole ornament Joel Kenton Barr, one must endure a spirited rendition of a song he wrote called "The Tea Party Song." He accompanies the tune on guitar in the cluttered west-central Phoenix house/office of Grapevine editor Philip Janes, where he has lived ever since Princess Leigh banished him from the castle they once shared. The chorus sounds like a loaner from Jim Croce's "You Don't Mess Around With Jim."You don't dam up the Mississippi You don't quit after you begin You don't promise the world democracy And go back on your word again.
This is Barr's shtick, what his world revolves around, this obsession with democracy. According to Barr, democracy doesn't exist, at least not in the United States of America. He has figured out why ineffectual government curses the nation, why he lost his brother in Vietnam: because there are too many voters, and not enough time.Theoretically, see, if all those voters could be persuaded to voice their opinions to their lawmakers, it wouldn't matter because the legislators could never process all the information in time to vote the will of the people. So, true representative government is a myth.Barr's solution: the American Tea Party, the party he founded with the mission of making things right again. He proposes using technology, in the form of a 24-hour phone line, to allow folks to deliver their opinions whenever they feel like it. Newspapers could list the numbers and titles of bills being debated, as Barr did in the Grapevine during the last legislative session, three or four pages of fine-point type. That's one reason he founded the paper in the first place.
"People have to have that menu in front of them," he says. "They can always go get a Grapevine and vote on something."
A political gadfly who joined Mensa so that he could run for governor in 1990 against the Ivy League degrees of Fife Symington and Terry Goddard, he is a sort of flaky technowarrior, a self-proclaimed underdog barking at the big guys. He once operated a phone line called 1-800-THE-VOTE, which collected opinions from callers and then faxed them to legislators.
But he has also run afoul of the law. The state Corporation Commission fined him $122,000 for running what it called a bogus water-company scam that bilked people for unneeded utility work. About $15,000 of the solicited money had funded his phone line. Barr chained himself to the commission's flagpole when it ruled against him.
But all that started before the frog found the princess.
What began as a brief romantic involvement and quixotic mission, however, has since deteriorated into a sour exchange of verbal punches:
He sabotaged everything.
She did things behind my back.
I was paying all the bills.
She thought she owned the company.
I spent all the money I had.
Butler says the press run was too large, that there wasn't enough advertising to finance the growth. She argued that the price of the 50-paper bundles should be doubled to $10; Barr said any homeless guy who woke up with $10 in his pants was waking up with somebody else's pants. She upped the price anyway. The rift was complete.
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.
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."
So far the Grapevine has set the pace, establishing longevity if nothing else. Scott Simons of Tempe-based SouthPrint International, which now prints all three newspapers, says it's rare for new publications to survive more than a couple of months, much less a year, as the Grapevine has done. "They've kind of beaten the odds," says Simons. And so far, the bills have been paid on time.
Homelessness, on the other hand, has become a situation so overwhelming and familiar that society has come to accept it as an unfortunate product of itself, central-city Serengetis of people without homes blending into the landscape amid dirt and grass and broken glass. It's hard to imagine how they even got there. Most have abuse problems, but though there are shelters and food lines and housing assistance and labor services, all the social entities that compose consortiums, few places offer the kind of help those people need.
"They don't need a handout," says Patrick Tucker, the Phoenix homeless advocate. "They need medical treatment. It's extremely limited. We don't even have 10 percent of what we need."Beyond programs at ComCare and Behavioral Health Services, he says, there isn't much. Most shelters are designed for single men, and only several thousand beds exist when homeless estimates are twice that.At the same time, there is a sense that the population is swelling, that the holes at the bottom of the filter are getting wider. So maybe someone buys from a homeless vendor because he fears he's a paycheck or two away from the same. Or maybe the problem is just too big to deal with and the next best thing is keeping the folks busy with a little change.But the Grapevine, Southwest Solutions, View Points, none of them is any magic carpet off the streets all by itself. Some advocates have noticed that the signs once replaced by newspaper sales are starting to reappear. "It's almost impossible to get out of here selling these papers," says Michelle, at her temporary camp underneath Squaw Peak Parkway. She's trying to coax Chris toward day labor; they've gotta get outta here.
Sometimes Jerry, the 41year-old auto mechanic, will slide on a set of cheap radio headphones and just coast along the sidewalk with his headlines. Maybe he sells a paper, maybe he doesn't. A year ago, he lost his wife in a car accident and everything was downhill afterward--his business, his health, his motivation. He can manage with his disability check, so it doesn't matter much whether he breaks any sales records, but some of these guys out here, they need the money. Their habits demand it. If there were no papers to sell, he says, they'd do whatever it took to get it.
"A lot of them get so hooked on to the alcohol and drugs that there is no way out," Jerry says. "If they shut the Grapevine down, I don't know what they're gonna do."
For now, they are all still here, a civil bunch of co-workers seeking sustenance and companionship. The Grapevine finally arrives, a half-hour late. Michelle swoops in for her supply.