If you’ve ever spent time in a major city, chances are you’ve come face-to-face with someone who is experiencing homelessness. Most people might walk straight past these individuals. Some might give a dollar or two. But for the average pedestrian, anything more than a small handout is too tall an order.
Then there’s senior Whitley O’Connor. Two years ago, O’Connor founded The Curbside Chronicle, a “street magazine” written and sold by homeless vendors in Oklahoma City. Though different publications employ different business models, “street papers” comprise a genre of publications produced and sold by homeless authors. By the most recent count, 125 street papers exist worldwide, and 43 in the United States.
“I have a heart for people,” said O’Connor of his endeavor. “Regardless of the situation they’re in, whether it’s domestic violence, or education and equity, or homelessness, I’m about implementing effective solutions to those issues.”
And despite a somewhat serendipitous start, The Curbside Chroniclehas already proved extremely effective. Throughout high school, O’Connor pursued philanthropic work through the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits and developed an interest in social enterprise. Upon arriving in Nashville as a first-year in the fall of 2010, O’Connor noticed the expansion of The Contributor, the street paper sold in Nashville, right near Vanderbilt. When he off-handedly commented on the expansion of the Nashville street paper to his social enterprise professor, the pair started to develop together a business model, and The Curbside Chronicle was born.
As street papers go, though, The Curbside Chronicleis unique in a few ways. Many street publications, including The Contributor, follow the “domestic model,” which focuses strongly on social issue content, in a newspaper format. The problem with such a model, according to O’Connor, is that it tends towards negativity without empowering authors or readers to improve the system.
“It doesn’t leave you with a, ‘here’s what we do’ mindset,” O’Connor said. In contrast, The Curbside Chronicleemploys a magazine format that features pop culture and local restaurant reviews alongside commentary on homelessness in Oklahoma City. Such a model allows the magazine to appeal to all readers, not just those interested in homelessness.
“We knew that we needed a product that would stand alone,” O’Connor said. It’s more empowering that way, we thought.”
The unorthodox business model has proved empowering indeed: Using an average of five vendors on a given day, the street magazine has sold about 5,800 copies since it began publishing in August 2013, reaching an audience of roughly 14,000 readers. Vendors buy the magazine for $0.75 per copy, and the suggested donation is $2. However, vendors often receive more for their wares, averaging between $3.50 and $4 per sale. Each sale may appear small, but the sum total is huge: By O’Connor’s estimation, vendors have raised between $20,000 and $24,000 selling The Curbside Chronicle.
Despite the magazine’s early successes, O’Connor has encountered unexpected challenges that come with managing a magazine among the homeless population. The challenge, O’Connor said, is not getting people to buy. Often, it’s getting people to sell.
“I went in very naively thinking that these jobs would come flocking to me,” O’Conner explained. “And it’s not a matter of community acceptance — more of getting the vendors out. Homeless people are often promised minimum wage for single-day construction jobs. In reality, according to O’Connor, these workers might receive just $40 for a full day’s work: an average of about $4 per hour.
Even if the construction firms are mistreating them, the certainty of a paycheck at day’s end makes recruiting vendors difficult for O’Connor. Altogether, though, selling the magazine makes more sense for the homeless: The Curbside Chronicle guarantees no paycheck, but vendors, on average, pocket $75 per day.
Such a substantial profit margin allows O’Connor to make an impressive guarantee to vendors: Sell The Curbside Chronicle consistently for three weeks, and we’ll find you housing. And since vendors began selling, the street magazine has found housing for four vendors and is now in the process of finding housing for two more. By this measurement, The Curbside Chroniclehas gone beyond helping the needy to breaking the cycle of homelessness in a realistic way.
Altogether, the accomplishments of the magazine are many and diverse. To O’Connor, though, the most important one is simple: “They feel more human doing this.”
The Curbside Chronicle is currently publishing every other month. The fourth issue will be released on Friday.