Editor’s note: During each Chips Quinn orientation and multimedia training in Nashville, Tenn., scholars are required to complete a mobile media reporting module, which includes producing videos and reporting and writing stories. Their work is displayed here.
In a city famous for its abundance of country and Christian music talent, Nashville, Tenn., also boasts other lesser-known yet equally important voices — those of the homeless that are published in The Contributor, a street newspaper written and sold by destitute people lacking a roof over their heads.
Amid storied buildings, now vacant, and ongoing new construction in the heart of downtown, the newspaper’s vendor entrance — a colorful door at the side of the Downtown Presbyterian Church — welcomes visitors, vendors and volunteers.
The paper, which its founders say is the first of its kind in Tennessee, includes perspectives on issues such as poverty and homelessness, along with sports items, poetry and short stories written by professional journalists and contributing writers in the homeless community.
One writer is Ray Ponce de León. He is also the newspaper’s first contractor, vendor number 00001, starting in 2007 when the paper was launched.
“I’m a born ham. Un jamón,” said Ponce de León, as he sat in the church’s fellowship hall with Contributor Outreach Director Robert Rosario and Molly Martin, annual campaign and grants manager. “Name, rank and serial number, that’s all you’re going to get out of me.”
Ponce de León sported a mustard-colored T-shirt, dark slacks and a baseball cap. His backpack and bubble jacket were at his feet. He sat sideways, not looking at anyone directly, and said he struggles with eye-to-eye contact if he’s not comfortable with the company around him.
A Cuban American, Ponce de León said he’s been writing short stories since he was nine, but could never finish them. It wasn’t until he turned 21, had completed a speedwriting course and was living in Los Angeles that he finished his first story. He was also writing songs, a hobby he’d started when he was 13.
He spent time in Florida, in Coral Gables and Tampa, and in Detroit. Around 2000, when the songs he wrote started sounding like pop music instead of country, he headed to Nashville. Once he arrived, he said, the songs started sounding like country again, and he joined the Nashville Songwriters Association International.
These days, he writes and sings his own music and enjoys writing for the paper. He can be found selling The Contributer near the Arcade, an enclosed shopping area at 4th Avenue North.
Ponce de León has strong views about his interactions with customers, especially those who give money but decline the newspaper. “I appreciate your goodwill, but by refusing to take the paper you’re not helping me or helping me promote the paper,” Ponce de León said. “If we’re just taking money, it makes me feel like a panhandler, and other vendors feel the same way.”
As he recounted the history of The Contributor, it’s clear that the paper is more than a job to Ponce de León. That may be because he used to be part of the editorial staff that produced the paper.
“I was working in construction around Nashville, so when I heard in ’07 they were going to form The Contributor, that was the first time I’d ever written for a newspaper,” he said.
At the time, the paper was published bimonthly. Vendors bought copies for 25 cents each and sold them for a dollar. By March 2014, as publication of the 100th issue approached, the staff encountered financial hiccups and increased the price. Vendors now buy the weekly paper for 75 cents and sell it for two dollars.
The price hike has made the paper more difficult to sell, but savvy vendors like Anita Smith have staked their claim in new neighborhoods. Most days, she stands at the corner of Edgehill Avenue and 18 Avenue South, near Vanderbilt University.
After a series of relationships that involved violence and substance abuse, Smith lost her business, home and the songs she wrote.
“I’m at (a recovery program) and I’ve been clean four months,” she said. Smith sings and does public speaking and street ministry, believing God will provide a way. She sees her family on weekends.
For Ponce de León, visiting his family is somewhat more elusive. “I have cousins and I can never find them,” he said. “I have three cousins, Silvia, Leanna and Cookie. They’re always meeting guys they think are the one, then they find out they’re not and they change their phone numbers. I have trouble finding them.”
He has no trouble identifying the centering force in his life. “The Contributor is like an anchor that keeps me grounded, keeps me focused,” he said. “It’s like a family, a living organism.”
Video: The Contibutor