The Bridge: Closing the Gap Between Homeless and Sheltered

Text by Lee McAlister | Photos courtesy of The Bridge

For the past four years The Bridge, Memphis’ street newspaper, has been providing people who are homeless or have experienced homelessness a source of income. Its organizers have also established themselves as community leaders in the Mid South.

Four years ago, a group of students at Rhodes College came together to organize The Bridge, the first student-run street newspaper. Inspired by the Nashville street paper, The Contributor, James Ekenstedt, Caroline Ponseti and Evan Katz saw an opportunity to help the Memphis homeless community. Little did they know what started out as 16-page monthly paper written by homeless individuals and staff writers would grow into an organization that has helped hundreds of Memphians experiencing homelessness. Although the original founders have graduated and moved on, current students keep the paper alive and thriving with content that focuses on topics of homelessness and poverty.

Rhodes senior Gillian Wenhold is The Bridge’s current executive director. She attributes the paper’s success to the spirit of service that is so prevalent on the local college campus and throughout the area. “Rhodes and the Memphis community are really service minded,” Wenhold says. “Rhodes has done so much to help the paper thrive and the vendors are so willing to work with us.”

The Bridge is distributed solely on the streets by vendors, independently contracted individuals who are homeless or have been homeless. Vendors receive 20 free copies and can buy extra papers for a quarter each. They sell them for a dollar, plus any tips, and keep 100 percent of the profit. “We think of them as micro business owners,” Wenhold says. “After they receive their 20 they are able to reinvest their profit into buying more papers, which helps them to earn more.”

Since it began production in 2013, The Bridge has provided over 400 vendors with professional sales training as well as a code of conduct they are to adhere to while selling the papers. The 95 active vendors sell on average 6,000 copies of the paper a month. “Vendors learn how to network. Then they make deals with businesses to sell them bulk orders or sell ad space for a commission,” says Wenhold.

Thanks to their newly gained business skills and the help of local business people who serve on The Bridge’s board, many former vendors have transitioned to full-time employment. “Through their sales experience vendors are able make connections and find jobs themselves through the relationships they build,” Wenhold explains, adding that the paper’s leaders hope to eventually establish a sustainable pipeline to place vendors in jobs or trade schools.

The Bridge not only provides those who are experiencing homelessness with a source of income but also a sense of community. “What we’ve heard from our vendors about homelessness is how isolating it is,” Wenhold says. “Many times, those who are experiencing homelessness are by themselves or with a spouse. The Bridge has given them [a] community they can connect with.”

Although the paper operates on a rather unorthodox system, Wenhold maintains its leadership’s biggest obstacle is also one of its greatest strengths. “Being a student-run organization, there is a lot of transition,” she explains, “however, it also means there is a constant stream of nonstop energy. Between eight departments and 65 student staffers we provide content, development strategy and vendor relations.”

The Bridge’s largest annual fundraiser, Under One Roof, set for Sat., Sept. 23 on the Rhodes campus, will include food, a silent auction and musical performances by local bands as well as Lipstick on Your Collar and Woolsocks, the Rhodes acapella groups. Price of admission is whatever you feel comfortable donating.

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