Thrive Detroit Newspaper Gives City's Homeless A Chance To Succeed

Delphia Simmons had never heard of a street newspaper until her supervisor at the Coalition On Temporary Shelter, an organization that supports the homeless, brought her a copy of One Step Away, Philadelphia's street paper.

After seeing the success of the Philly paper and researching the street paper in Ann Arbor, Mich., she questioned why Detroit didn't have a street paper -- which typically addresses issues related to poverty and homelessness and is distributed by poor or homeless vendors. She realized the difference it could make for a struggling individual in the city and launched her own street publication, Thrive Detroit, which just published its second issue this month.

"I do work in a homeless shelter, and I see first hand how a little bit of money every month -- a couple of hundred dollars every month -- can keep someone housed," Simmons said. "So, that was really the inspiration, the fact it doesn't really take a whole lot to keep someone housed."

Simmons, who has a business degree, said the paper encourages entrepreneurship by allowing participants to profit from their work and initiative.

"We do this by providing the publication for 25 cents and allowing them to sell it for one dollar and allowing them to keep 75 cents for each publication they sell." She added that to kick off people's involvement, Thrive offers vendors their first 10 papers for free.

People sometimes mistake the publication for a nonprofit, she said, but it is actually a low-profit limited liability company. The name Thrive comes from Simmons' strong interest in microfinance.

Like many street papers, Thrive covers issues that matter to the homeless and the "vulnerably housed," people on the verge of homelessness. This month's issue focuses on literacy, and November's issue included information on the Occupy Detroit movement and resources to help pay utility bills, as well as a feature the Coalition On Temporary Shelter. Most of Thrive's writers and production staff are vulnerably housed, not homeless. Organizers at other homeless papers told Simmons this is a typical situation.

"We've only had a small number, less than 10, that are actually literally homeless. So we really want to get that number up," she said. "We've asked people to tell [others] who are homeless about the opportunity."

Because Simmons does not have a degree in Journalism, she has been drawing on the experience of people who work with the local branch of the National Association of Black Journalists and a few other local groups. She has also received help from a member of the Traveler's Aid Society who previously worked with Chicago's street paper, and got some content from Model D, a web-based magazine in Detroit.

Simmons also credited 2-1-1 On the Go!, a branch of the local United Way that provides mobile field assistance to people in need, in helping get the word out about the paper.

"[They actually go] out and engage the homeless population," she said. "They've been going in vacant houses. They've been going under bridges and in the parks, and they've been excellent at distributing the paper and letting people know about it."

Simmons' hard work to get the project up and running attracted the notice of Kiva, a nonprofit organization that uses the Internet and its worldwide microfinance network to issue loans that help alleviate poverty. Kiva learned about Simmons' project from Margarita Barry, a Detroit entrepreneur who helped set up the organization's local branch.

"We all had the task of finding some emerging businesses that would be interested in microloans and that's kind of how I thought of Delphia," Barry said. "I knew she was working on her street newspaper and thought she would be a good candidate."

Kiva's Detroit board liked Simmons' proposal and agreed to loan her the funds to jumpstart her publication. Simmons also ended up becoming a board member with Kiva, and it appears her work there has only just begun. Kiva's Detroit branch recently received support from the Knight foundation, which will match loans dollar-for-dollar up to a total of $250,000.

As for the paper itself, Barry is excited about Thrive's future and believes it offers something of value to the city's homeless and struggling residents.

"I think this is a great opportunity for them to not only work, but also to learn that type of business savvy," she said. "I think that opportunity to learn is really great, and the newspaper itself has a lot of really great contributors, and it's well designed and I think it definitely has a lot of great potential."

According to The North American Street Newspaper Association's website, the benefits of street papers go far beyond economic opportunity:

For the vendor, they offer a positive experience of self-help that breaks through the isolation that many homeless people experience. They offer the public a means to reach out with their dollar to help a homeless person directly and, over time, form a caring relationship. Most street newspapers also provide homeless and/or those living on the margins of society the opportunities for expression by publishing their articles, letters and artwork. These publications build a bridge between the very poor and the wider public by helping people to understand the issues and the personal stories of those on the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

Although Thrive's first issue had some rough edges, Simmons said that her staff has experienced a very sharp learning curve. She said critiques of the first issue really helped improve the look and feel of the current edition.

Simmons encouraged anyone interested in helping Thrive expand to contact her, especially writers and people with experience securing ad revenue. It is clear in speaking with Simmons that she is very optimistic about the publication's prospects.

"I'm just waiting for it to reach that critical mass, and we're going to keep pumping it out there all winter, and hopefully by the spring there won't be a person panhandling," she said. "You'll only see a person selling the paper."

Thrive Detroit is currently sold at COTS (26 Petersboro, Detroit) and 71 Pop (71 Garfield, Detroit).

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As 2011 comes to a close, HuffPost Detroit looks to honor those who made an impact in our city this year. The 2011 Detroit Impact series will profile one organization per day until the end of the year. There are 11 organizations included in the series (see them all in the slideshow below), but there are dozens more doing good in and around Detroit. For full coverage of the people and organizations helping others, visit HuffPost Detroit Impact.

Detroit Impact 2011