Robert is a modern-day newsie. But he doesn’t hawk a tabloid or news rag on the streets of New York or Mexico City. He sells The Curbside Chronicle at busy intersections in northwest Oklahoma City. Some sales days are better than others.
“I did do really well Friday. I had 31 magazines and I sold out in less than two hours,” said Robert, who chose not to share his last name. “I didn’t have any more and I was upset with myself ‘cause I should have bought at least 60.”
The Curbside Chronicle is a glossy culture and entertainment magazine, a project of the Homeless Alliance. It is somewhat modeled on successful street papers like the The Contributor in Nashville, Robert’s hometown, where 300 vendors are employed.
Ranya and Whitley O’Connor started the magazine in July 2013. Ranya has a background in marketing and non-profits, while her husband Whitley is the graphic designer. Content is created and informed by folks experiencing homelessness, and by volunteer photographers and writers.
“Half of our content is whatever you'd find in most magazines. You know, general interest, food, people, things to do,” O'Connor said. “And then the other half is either written by the homeless, or about homelessness or other social issues in OKC, so it can also be an educational tool.”
Vendors often guide content and contribute. For example, vendor Marcos Powell, a film buff, reviewed 13 classic horror films for the October issue. In an upcoming issue, he may preview some of the selections to be shown at this year's DeadCENTER Film Festival. The Curbside begins monthly publication very soon, with nine bimonthly issues published to date.
The most current issue profiles three Oklahoma City residents from diverse backgrounds— Gov. Mary Fallin, rock star Wayne Coyne, and Robert, a multi-talented and formerly homeless Curbside vendor. Each issue features a vendor profile, which often helps that vendor sell more copies.
“When I'm out selling, people say, ‘I saw you in the Curbside. Let me have one of those magazines’,” Robert said. “And lots of times I have my issue and another issue and they buy both of them, ‘cause I tell them I'm in that issue.”
The “Meet Robert” profile reveals his culinary passions, his grandmother’s loving influence, his former basketball career and his desire to help people move forward from difficult circumstances like prison, homelessness and depression. Robert has a paralegal studies degree and plans to become licensed within the year. He aims to advocate for policies and programs to keep youth out of gangs and prison. He also discusses sleeping outside for over a year.
“I was sleeping in front of the courthouse and I got along very well with the officers,” Robert explained, because the Oklahoma City police headquarters is located directly behind the county courthouse. “I treated them with respect and they treated me with respect. In fact, they gave me some money, they bought me some clothes. They got me some shoes and gave me a big old coat.”
Robert chose the courthouse because it was a safe place to sleep. Photos accompanying the interview show Robert cooking in the new apartment he affords with assistance from the Hope House, and earnings from Curbside sales.
O’Connor, Curbside's director, helps vendors set and meet financial goals, by suggesting sales schedules and locations, and connecting them with financial guidance and resources, but it’s like any other job in that vendors choose how to spend their cash. She says all vendors have different financial goals and needs. Beyond housing and transportation, there are often medical costs, or tickets to pay off, and even more basic needs, like a change of clothes.
“One of our vendors went on a shopping spree for the first time in like the past year and a half last month. He came in all decked out in a new cowboy hat and a new shirt, and some new jeans and boots. And that was awesome that he was able to spend the money on himself and on things that he liked from working. So while they use it for things like housing and necessities, they can also use it for things to make life more enjoyable,” O'Connor said with pride.
Curbside is growing, and expanding its mission to employ the homeless, and to facilitate understanding between homeless residents and those who may not have experienced similar circumstances.
“We want to bridge that gap. We want there to be more interaction with people who haven't experienced homelessness and people who have, because they're both part of the Oklahoma City community and they can work together. We can talk about issues around homelessness, and together we can solve them and better it,” O’Connor said.
Recently, Curbside photographers and vendors paired up to explore the cityscape together, producing a series of photographs that reveal the city through the eyes of the homeless. Regular contributors like Quit Nguyen, Hunter Brothers and Christian Bruggeman joined vendors John, Marcos, Robert, Gary, Jerry, and Booker to explore places where homeless residents stay, or gather during the day, and other locations that have been meaningful in their lives.
Robert paired with photographers Geovanny de Leon and Ryan West for a couple days of photo touring. De Leon is a film developer at Bedford Camera on North May Avenue, the company that developed, free of charge, all of the black and white and color prints for the project, titled “How I See OKC.” De Leon, an experienced photojournalist and graphic designer new to Oklahoma City, wasn’t quite sure about the project when his co-worker Christian Bruggeman originally invited him to participate.
“At first I wasn't so into it. Being raised in California, I always see photographers going around trying to photograph homeless people, and I just thought it was one of those typical projects where they just wanna make themselves look better. But once Christian explained it to me, I actually loved it, because it wasn't just about the people. It was about the environment, the locations and where they've been. That's when I got more into it. It's more of helping them and letting the public know where they've been, how they lived and where do they go to survive,” de Leon said.
Robert and Geovanny had several adventures while shooting photos together, and have developed an obvious affinity.
“Actually I had a lot of fun with him, every story he told me and every location he took me,” de Leon said. “Every location we went had a story, and I loved it.” Both men giggled then, remembering the time they were nearly run off from a favorite location. A neighbor came over to say they were trespassing on private property while shooting an abandoned house previously lived in by several homeless folks, before it burned down over the winter. Everything turned out fine though, except, mysteriously, the photos of the burnt out home.
De Leon’s favorite part of Robert’s tour was a weekly gathering put on by individuals, in the old Goodwill parking lot at southwest 4th and Hudson.
“We got there on a Sunday, and all I see is a couple cars pull up and the families were handing out free food and clothing. On their own free will they will show up and feed the homeless,” said de Leon, describing the scene that day.
“We missed Carol. She wasn't there. She brings clothes and some kind of pastries, every Sunday. She was sick though, which is too bad, ‘cause I would have liked to get a picture of her,” Robert said.
A couple of Robert’s favorite photos didn’t turn out, but he plans to take more for the magazine in the future.
“The project was to see what I see out of my eyes, so the only thing I regret was that I didn't take a picture of the Devon Tower from a distance, ‘cause that's the first thing a homeless person sees when they're walking down the street, is that big old tower. Homeless people cannot stand in front of, lay down, sit in front of Devon. You will be arrested,” Robert explained.
The “How I See OKC” photo exhibit opens Thursday at 6:00 p.m. at the Society Gallery in the Plaza District. The photos are also on view and for sale during the Plaza Arts Walk Friday from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m.
Inside the gallery, and outside in the parking lot, there are around 40 framed and matted 12 x 18 and 12 x 12 photos, priced under $100. Sleeved prints are priced between 15 and 30 dollars, and 5 x 7s are less than five each. Most of the 14 participating photographers and vendors will be available to discuss their images. All proceeds go directly to the vendor who snapped the photo or acted as guide.
Indian Head Productions created a short video to document the project and its participants.
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