Building hope, one paper at a time

This is how it works: You get 10 free papers to start, and then you have to buy them from us for 25 cents each. Then you hit the streets and hawk the papers for a dollar donation.

The Denver VOICE is a nonprofit news magazine that provides people who are homeless with jobs. We started with a distribution of 1,500 papers three years ago and a handful of vendors and have soared to more than 16,500 papers a month with nearly 1,000 vendors.

I didn’t know what it was really about when I started. In fact, I wasn’t sure we would survive; journalism is changing so fast, and papers are certainly not looking healthy. It comes down to the single sale and an opportunity for people to make a one-on-one transaction. In that transaction, something began to happen that I wouldn’t have imagined when I started, and it’s part of why I am still here.

When you are homeless and you have been there for a while, you become conditioned to beg for charity, which is often humiliating and confidence-crushing. It is a powerful experience to be able to provide someone with means to provide for themselves.

“I was having daily conversations with people that were getting the Denver VOICE from me,” John Alexander says. “They were truly interested in me and concerned about things in my life and I found myself feeling the same way for them. They all treated me, not as the man that I saw myself to be daily, but as though I was the man that intended to become.”

The current recession has hit this community hard. Non-profits and other service providers have had to face shrinking budgets coupled with a surge in demand for their services. In the last two years, the homeless population in the city and county of Denver increased by 44 percent, to 6,656 individuals.

The Denver VOICE  has seen a similar increase in people we serve. In 2008 we provided jobs for 650 people; in 2009 nearly 1,000 people (or 15 percent of Denver’s homeless population) worked in our vendor program, collectively earning $355,000. For every dollar it costs to run our program, the community at large puts a dollar directly into the hands of our vendors, who use that money to provide for themselves, thus reducing their dependence on service providers.

One paper at a time, a relationship is developed and patrons buy into the project as they get to know vendors and begin to care about them. But the picture is so much bigger than that. We couldn’t have been so successful if it weren’t for the relationships we’ve built with the business community and city political leaders.

We have worked hard to build the trust and engagement of the larger business community. I am confident in saying that nearly everyone would prefer to give someone money who is working rather than to someone asking for their pity. The Downtown Denver Partnership, Denver’s Road Home and the Denver police department have come to embrace us. They are instrumental in making this jobs program work.

We work hard to create an intelligent and well-written publication so that the public will come back and support our vendors again and again. In 2009, the paper earned some prestigious local and national awards, including the 2009 Mastermind Award from Westword and the 2009 Excellence in Urban Journalism Award from the Freedom Forum and the Enterprise Institute.

Those vendors who stick with it get a crash course in business — money management, inventory and presentation, how to make a sale building a clientele, marketing and networking.

We are pleased to say that not all of our vendors are homeless. In fact, when we surveyed them we found that over half stay in hotels, apartments or houses with money they earned from the Denver VOICE. If it wasn’t for the paper most of them would be homeless. If our vendors come to us jobless and homeless, we aim to provide them with the means to transition into stable employment and housing.

It is about business and developing relationships with folks you wouldn’t naturally gravitate to.  In the end, the Denver VOICE is a means for people to connect.
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