Nashville proposes law that would outlaw The Contributor’s main distribution method

Following The Curbside Chronicle‘s campaign against a local law that would affect their sales, Nashville paper The Contributor has been facing a similar situation. Here, editor Skip Anderson writes about how a ‘public-safety’ ordinance could be a danger to their paper and their vendors’ ability to make a living. INSP has written a letter of support for The Contributor and urges the local council to work with this excellent street paper to find a better way forward.

Richard T selling the paper with his authorised badge

By Skip Anderson, editor of The Contributor

Nashville’s Metro Council will soon consider an ordinance that would outlaw the sale of newspapers to persons in vehicles, a business model that homeless and formerly homeless vendors of The Contributor have used to sell 5.6 million copies since the nonprofit street newspaper’s founding in 2007.

District 12 Councilmember Steve Glover sponsored Ordinance No. BL2015-32, which was heard for the first of three readings at the Metro Council meeting Tuesday, 20 October.

“It’s about making Nashville a safer place,” Glover told The Contributor, saying he didn’t know of any instances in which such activity in Nashville has resulted in injury.

“From my standpoint, this is a preventative measure. I was literally at a standstill [in traffic] and somebody—I don’t think it was one of yours—climbed off a [semi-truck] and ran into my car. Thank God I wasn’t moving. But had I been, somebody could have been hurt seriously. So, we would have hurt that family, and it could possibly destroy my family if I got charged with vehicular homicide. So, it’s purely a safety issue.”

Every Contributor vendor undergoes about three hours of training prior to being issued a probationary badge that enables them to sell the nonprofit paper that features information pertaining to homelessness and poverty; vendor poetry, writing, and art; and articles on entertainment, sports, and film, according to co-founder Tom Wills. And they undergo an additional 1.5 hours of training after they’ve completed their probationary period before being awarded their permanent badge.

Elaine P selling The Contributor with a smile

Safety, Wills said, is at the forefront of both training sessions, as are the First Amendment and local laws already on the books that already outlaw being in the street as a pedestrian.

Mayor Megan Barry, who previously served on the Metro Homelessness Commission, issued a statement of support for The Contributor shortly after the amendment became known last week: “The Contributor is a great way to help those individuals experiencing homelessness to start rebuilding their lives and get back on their feet while also providing a service to the people of Nashville.

“I don’t believe this legislation is necessary, and I hope that instead of limiting options for individuals experiencing homelessness, we can work together to expand opportunities for them to find a home, earn a living, and get the services and support needed to repair their lives.”

Glover said he has received 20 to 25 verbal complaints from his constituents about people being in the streets, and that he personally called the police “five or six times” this spring.

“When they would get out into the street, I would call Metro Police and I would send an officer out to Hermitage and we would ask them to please get out of the street,” he said. “The officer would leave, and then in no time flat whoever it was would be back out into the street… They couldn’t arrest them; that’s the Catch-22.”

James E shows off the latest copy of The Contributor

Glover said the amendment doesn’t specifically target The Contributor, noting that other organisations use a similar distribution method.

Wills said he knows of no other Nashville-based street newspaper that requires its vendors to sign a contract stating, among other things, they will not step into the road to sell—a clear violation of jaywalking laws. When he receives complaints about Contributor vendors, he or his staff contacts the vendor accused of wrongdoing to remind them of the law, and of the contract they signed.  If the vendor continues the activity, s/he is subject to penalty up to and including termination of their association with the organisation. The Contributor is the only street paper in Nashville that’s registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organisation.

Glover said he modelled his amendment after a law in Brentwood that outlaws the sale of The Contributor to people in vehicles. A federal judge ruled in favour of the city of Brentwood in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of the newspaper.

“Brentwood filed it, and it’s been through the court system, and we watched that,” he said. “And we basically tailored this to the same move that Brentwood had done.”

Glover said he plans to meet with The Contributor’s executive director, Brady Banks, soon.

“There’s nothing else about this but safety,” Glover said. “That’s why I’ve agreed to meet with Brady.”

Banks previously represented District 4 on the Metro Council. He did not seek reelection in 2015.
Glover said he volunteers with Room In The Inn, a nonprofit organisation that provides emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness, and stated that he is all for giving “every hand up to help people get out of homelessness. But I will not back off of this being a public safety issue. If your folks aren’t stepping out into the streets, then this shouldn’t have any affect on you.”

But that’s not how the amendment reads, a point Glover conceded later in the 15 October interview when he was asked to clarify.

“It’s my understanding,” the question began, “that this amendment would outlaw someone on the sidewalk or on the curb conducting a sale with a driver of a car or a passenger of the car—this legislation would in fact make that activity illegal. Do I have a misunderstanding of the amendment?”

“I think right now you may not have a misunderstanding of it,” Glover said. “And that’s why I’m willing to meet with Brady and let’s talk about it. This goes through three readings before this would ever pass… Once this is all said and done, if we can come to an agreement on the public-safety issue, I don’t think there’s any hindrance trying to be done for anybody making a living.”

Vendor David P

Glover said there are other ways for people to make a living other than selling a newspaper to people in vehicles.

“I literally had a contractor today tell me that he would pay somebody $20 per hour if he could just get people who would apply for the jobs just to pick up debris and clean up on a construction site,” he said.

“Not everybody is able to do construction work for dozens and dozens of legitimate reasons,” Wills said. “When you’re homeless or experiencing extreme poverty, you’re often working for your next meal, and people who purchase The Contributor help our vendors in very meaningful ways.”

Earlier this year, Glover threatened to defund four projects that would largely affect people of limited financial resources should the council fail to approve the planned relocation of a jail from downtown to Harding Place, including a Head Start early childhood education program specifically designed to help low-income children.

For more information, visit Nashville Metro Council’s website.

Photos: Charlotte How

The Contributor by Numbers

Year Founded: 2007
Number of current vendors: 296
Number of Vendors Since Inception: 2,540
Average number of papers sold each week: 9,658
Number of papers sold since inception: 5.6 million
Number of sale-related injuries/accidents reported: 0
12-Month Economic Impact for Vendors: $1.66 million
Number of volunteers: 20
Number of full-time employees: 8