by Len Lear
If you have walked past Kilian’s iconic hardware store or Weavers Way in recent months, you may have seen a relentlessly cheerful young man standing in front holding a stack of newspapers. He politely asks passersby if they would like to buy one for $1. Some say nothing and pretend he is invisible. Many say no, but he still smiles and says, “Have a nice day.” If they say yes, he is extremely effusive in his gratitude, as if they had just agreed to purchase a Rolex watch from him.
The monthly newspaper is called One Step Away. It calls itself “Greater Philadelphia’s first newspaper produced by those without homes for those with homes.” It was started in 2011 by the International Network of Street Papers, which helps 14,000 homeless and formerly homeless vendors sell 126 different localized street papers in 41 countries. It claims to have a combined readership of 6,000,000. Its purpose is “to empower more men, women and families to leave homelessness behind … to offer employment with a low barrier of entry, not only empowering vendors to gain work skills and confidence but also providing them with the opportunity to earn an income to support themselves and to gain and maintain housing.”
One Step Away has well-written articles about the issue of homelessness by volunteers such as Catherine Offord, a graduate student with an interest in journalism, and Joe Selfridge, a retired attorney and high school teacher. Photos are taken by Ted Goldman, who retired after 39 years in the chemical industry to pursue a career in photojournalism.
Needless to say, no one is going to put a down payment on a new Mercedes by selling the newspaper on the streets of Philadelphia. For each one dollar paid for One Step Away, the vendor gets to keep 75 cents, and the other 25 cents helps pay for the cost of printing the paper, which provides a measure of dignity and respect to the vendors selling it. Most people who walk past the vendors probably have no idea they are homeless because they do not fit the image. They are dressed pretty much like many of the pedestrians who walk past them except for a bright yellow vest over their outer clothing which identifies them as legitimate One Step Away vendors.
“I usually have 30 papers,” said Norman Ragsdale, 34, who can often be found near Kilian’s. (He is not there every day.) “It takes me about three hours most of the time to sell all 30. When people see you have a positive spirit, they do not mind helping you out.” (The three hours’ work nets him a total of $22.50 if all 30 are sold, just about the minimum wage.)
Norman grew up in Southwest Philadelphia and attended Bartram High School, which he did not finish, but he did wind up getting his GED. He has two brothers but literally does not know if he has any sisters. “I might have sisters,” he said, “but I’m not sure because my father disappeared when we were children. He was on drugs, and he just left. I have no idea what ever happened to him.”
For five years after high school, Norman worked for his cousin, an independent contractor, mostly helping people move out of apartments and houses and delivering furniture for companies like Raymour and Flanagan. He also sold business machines for one year and worked for a printing firm in Southwest Philadelphia for three years full-time, working 12-hour shifts loading and wrapping heavy stacks of newspapers. However, the economy tanked, and he was laid off.
But the real slide into oblivion happened when Norman began using drugs 10 years ago and continued using for three years. He could no longer pay rent and for other basic necessities, and he found himself out on the street. “I did not want to bother my family because they had already been through a lot,” he said. “I slept on benches, people’s front steps in West and Southwest Philly, on trains, wherever I could lay my head.
“I was begging for money at a gas station. I’d say, ‘Can I pump your gas?’ About half of the people would help me out. I was shocked that so many did. Some people would even give me a day’s work. I looked for every opportunity. Whatever money I got went for food. I’d go to a Chinese food store and get rice and gravy or fries and wings for $3 or $4. I usually ate twice a day. I kept praying for things to get better. It was a learning experience.”
Norman was homeless for about five months. While he was homeless himself, Norman bought a copy of One Step Away for one dollar and learned from the vendor about the process. Norman signed up and has now been selling the paper himself for the last year, with the last six months in Chestnut Hill. Thanks to One Step Away and income from odd jobs like yard work, landscaping, furniture moving and anything else he can pick up, Norman was able to get off the street and move into a room in Germantown. He takes the 23 bus to get to Chestnut Hill. He even takes public transportation to go from Germantown to services at his old church in Southwest Philly.
“I kept praying and trusting God,” he said. “I know that He will work it out.”
Norman is definitely available to do odd jobs. He can be reached at 267-279-0184 or firstname.lastname@example.org