Curbside Chronicle is an Oklahoma magazine sold entirely by people experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness. By the organization’s estimates, they’ve been able to help half of their vendors attain housing. And though helping people experiencing homelessness get money is a huge part of why they operate, they also pride themselves on building their vendors’s confidence through creating a reason for face-to-face interaction with customers.
All that changed in the COVID-19 era, and now they’re taking action to serve their community in different ways. As part of NationSwell Live, we’re amplifying their efforts — and showing you how you can get involved.
Here’s what they had to say about how we can all take action to help people experiencing homelessness through this crisis.
NationSwell: Can you please introduce yourself?
Curbside Chronicle’s Whitley O’Connor: My name is Whitley O’Connor, I am the Social Enterprise Strategist for the Homeless Alliance. The Homeless Alliance is the parent organization of the Curbside Chronicle, which is the street paper that my wife and I founded seven years ago. A street paper is a publication that is partially created and completely sold by individuals who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness. There are about 115 around the world, about 35 in the U.S. It’s something that kind of started in New York and spread all over the world, all independently run. So it’s not like one big group, but we all have an association. We work through, um, in addition to curbside, we have started pursuing, um, other additional ventures to provide employment. Whether it’s on the preventative side for folks who haven’t experienced homelessness yet or for transitioning our vendors who sell the magazine into next steps.
We focus primarily on individuals who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness. 70% of our clients at the Homeless Alliance are what we call “street homeless” — they’re currently in a space that’s not habitable for human beings. The other 30% or so are folks that we have gotten into housing and they’re not quite to the point that we’d call self sufficiency. For the paper itself, a large group of our workforce are folks that are interested in employment and they want to make money, but they feel as though they’ve been excluded from the workforce due to various barriers — whether it’s mental illness, incarceration records, lack of transportation or education, various barriers that we’ve worked through.
Now, I want to say maybe about 50% of those individuals are in housing through our program. And so have this like sort of revolving door where we have folks that, because of their barriers, they’ll always be selling the magazine. And we have others that were able to transition to other employment. But we do have a pretty good success rate of getting people into housing if they’re willing to stick with the program and work with us. But we don’t have a cap or requirement to entering our program. Anyone who needs our program is welcome to utilize it. So just because you’re getting the housing doesn’t mean you can’t sell anymore.
NS: How has COVID-19 impacted that community?
CC: I describe our vendors as modern day newsies. And so just like you would have seen boys and girls, men, women on street corners yelling, “Extra, extra!” — That’s kind of where vendors do. That’s kind of the model that street papers utilize. Door-to-door sales aren’t really legal or profitable U.S. anymore, and so our folks are in business districts, are on the side of the road on busy intersections selling the magazine.
So obviously the money component is a big part of it, but another big part of our mission is breaking down barriers between individuals, between our vendor and our customer. I’m giving people a reason to interact with someone that they normally wouldn’t have otherwise. There’s not really a typical reason to interact with the person staying on the street corner holding a sign. This gives you a reason to interact with them, to roll down your window, to engage.
Breaking down that stigma is a really big deal. It also boosts our vendors’ confidence. They start to build these salesmanship skills. So when COVID-19 hit, it shut us down. You go from like this face to face interactions that’s key to what we do — but we don’t publish online — that face to face interaction is a giant part of the mission. Right? And so you go nearly overnight to not wanting to interact with people anymore. So we were one of the first street papers to shut down because we wanted to take an overabundance of precaution. People experiencing homelessness tend to have higher health barriers and preexisting conditions than the general public. And so we wanted to protect them.
So we started selling the magazine online for the first time in an effort to raise money for vendor fund. That vendor fund works in many ways like the restaurant funds and health care fund and whatnot that you’ve seen pop up. It’s an emergency fund that our vendors could apply to for things like rent assistance, food assistance, to pay their phone bills — all those things that they were using the money from the magazines they sold for. The idea was that they could apply for these funds to tap into.
NS: How can our audience take action to help? 
CC: If we do this really well, if we respond to this pandemic and its economic crisis really well, we’ll all come out a little bit poorer. It sounds weird, but it’s kind of what needs to happen. Obviously economically, most people have been hit by this. Not everyone, but most people. But in general, this is a time where everyone’s really going to have to — if we want to not see even further increased economic disparity — we’re going to have to see some pretty drastic redistribution of wealth here. It’s going to have to be on an individual and voluntary manner, but hopefully that’s what we’ll see.
But also, we’d love people to go online and read the magazine. Obviously, we’re pretty proud of the product we put out. One thing from a social enterprise stand point that we really hold dear is that we want our product to be of value. We don’t want folks to buy it because of the social mission, right? Obviously, that is why most people start engaging, but we want them to pick up our magazine and say, “Oh, man, that’s a really valuable product!” We’ve won Best Magazine in Oklahoma for the past two years. We just won a number of regional journalism awards, and so we’re really proud of what we’re putting out.
NationSwell Live is a one-hour event on June 26, 2020 that will convene organizations like Curbside Chronicle that have been at the frontlines of COVID-19 response for communities with some of the most urgent need. Together, we’ll take meaningful steps towards offering help at a time when so many need it. Find out more here.