At first blush, it'd be easy to mistake Merl Childs for a panhandler.
He's skinny in a way that comes from long-term hunger, not from fad diets and recreational running. His clothes hang on him. He stands alone in the heat outside OU Medical Center, sweat coursing down his face, arms and legs. A sign is pinned to his green apron.
In truth, Childs, 53, has tried his hand at panhandling in the past. He's got a place to stay now, but he's been homeless, and he's been in prison. He's held out his hand and begged.
“I never was very good at it,” he said recently. “They (people) actually threw things at me.”
He's not begging anymore. He's out here, boiling in the sun, because it's his job.
For the past several weeks, Childs has been an independent contractor for Oklahoma City's newest publication, The Curbside Chronicle, a magazine-style “street newspaper” that combines general-interest features with stories about and by homeless people.
The Chronicle is the brainchild of college students from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and the University of Oklahoma. It operates under the auspices of The Homeless Alliance, with support from prominent Oklahoma residents and nonprofits, including David Rainbolt, president of BancFirst, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
The newspaper has ambitious — some would say audacious — goals. Currently there are only about 10 vendors hawking the publication on the streets. About 800 copies sold the first month.
Within three years, organizers hope to sell about 30,000 newspapers a month, employ more than 100 vendors and place at least 10 vendors into housing and careers.
Within seven years, they hope 250 or more vendors will sell about 75,000 papers a month, with a third of them no longer homeless.
“Nobody wants to see more panhandlers in Oklahoma City,” said Ranya Forgotson, the paper's 21-year-old editor. “But this is a way of giving our homeless jobs. You're not just giving them money; you're getting something in return. The whole city can benefit from it.”
Whitley O'Connor encountered his first street newspaper when he enrolled at Vanderbilt. The Ada resident was shocked to see few panhandlers; instead, people stood at busy intersections selling a paper called The Contributor to passing motorists.
These homeless folks were unlike the ones he remembered from Oklahoma, where many sat with cardboard signs and hopeless faces, hoping for the kindness of strangers. In Nashville, the paper vendors seemed animated, smiley and self-confident — and they were treated with more respect.
O'Connor explored the social services available to the homeless in both cities and found they were similar. No big discrepancies. No major divergences. The only difference he could find was the influence of The Contributor.
Thus began a two-year push to get a similar publication started in Oklahoma City.
O'Connor — now 21 and the executive director of the Chronicle — had no business experience. He and others spent months meeting with nonprofits, looking at how other street papers function, and working out details before getting the publication up and running.
The business model works something like this:
O'Connor, Forgotson and others are unpaid workers, operating out of space provided by The Homeless Alliance. They sell advertisements, provide content, design the newspaper, work with a printer and deal with the endless small tasks associated with what is, essentially, a small business. They also solicit content from the homeless, giving them a voice. The first issue, for example, includes an interview with Childs, who is an artist, and a piece written by a homeless man about the underground tunnels in downtown Oklahoma City.