This is a story about Wendell. Wendell is a businessman located on the corner of the West End’s drive-through Starbucks. His hours are 7am to 6pm almost every day. Since establishing his small enterprise in March 2020, he has become beloved by locals who pass him in his folding chair with his backpack full of The Contributor newspaper copies. Wendell is not your average businessman. He is a veteran dealing with depression and anxiety, he has had to live on streets for three extended periods of his life, and he recently earned enough money to secure housing for himself. Wendell has experienced homelessness, and now, he makes his living as an independent vendor for The Contributor, Nashville’s award-winning, local street paper. When I met with Wendell last week, he asked me to spread the word about The Contributor. He also suggested that I take an Economics class, because he wished he had when he was in school. You—reader of The Vanderbilt Review’s blog—likely care about arts and literature. I implore you to find, purchase and enjoy the bi-weekly copies of this wonderful publication that includes poems, interviews, short essays and art from the very vendors who sell the paper. Your $2 in spare change or extra Venmo balance directly paves your vendor’s path to housing and supports a quality newspaper.
At The Vanderbilt Review, we are in proximity to other literary and arts organizations on our campus and in the Nashville area. When considering another publication to highlight in my blog post, I didn’t foresee myself conducting an interview on the corner of the West End Starbucks Drive-through. Wendell graciously spoke to me for around fifteen minutes as he sold newspapers to customers passing by. Within that short time, at least four people stopped to say hello to Wendell, to which he responded with his signature, “Have a great day, beautiful!” He asked one man why he was wearing a different hat today, “Aren’t you a Saints fan?” he said. Wendell’s work has made him an essential part of the community, so much so that when he took a few days off several weeks ago, apparently The Contributor’s headquarters received multiple emails concerned for his well being. Every single person deserves support from their local community, but in reality, people without housing are often denied jobs, discriminated against, and criminalized.
Many publications deserve our attention, but The Contributor’s mission is truly something special. It is both an organization and a publication, as it empowers people experiencing houselessness with gainful employment on their own terms coupled with support resources like their C.O.V.E.R. Housing Navigation Program (Creating Opportunities for Vendor Engagement/Entrepreneurship and Residency). All of their vendors experience some degree of insecure housing, but The Contributor’s business model has amazing results: 70% of their vendors make enough money to find housing after six months of selling The Contributor. Of course, housing insecurity is a very complex problem, and this organization does not claim to solve the multifaceted issues contributing to it. However, it offers a pathway to housing, credible job experiences, vocational training, and further Vendor Support Resources for those who might not otherwise have access to them.
From its business model to its publishing work, all aspects of The Contributor aim to help our currently unhoused community members. It is an extraordinary creative space to share art, poetry, and prose from vendors themselves. The bi-weekly newspaper publishes thought-provoking, creative content that it describes as “hyper-local” and social justice oriented. Each edition is thematically relevant: their current paper celebrates National Hispanic Heritage month, through their cover art, features on several Hispanic Nashvillians, and more. This edition’s nonprofit spotlight is on Poverty and the Arts, an artist’s collective providing income, supplies, and support to homeless artists in Nashville. Their Vendor Writing segment showcases vendors’ storytelling talents and thoughtfully composed poetry. The section is critically engaging, entertaining, vulnerable, provocative, and ultimately, a great read. I wish I could say more about the contents of the paper, but hopefully I have convinced you to buy the paper for yourself. The Contributor combats social stigma and uplifts the dignity of people in poverty while prioritizing a creative and expressive space for its vendors. For a population too often reduced to negative stereotypes, this paper invests in promoting the myriad of artistic voices that deserve to be heard as much as every other Nashville creative. I highly recommend expanding your pool of artistic consumption to support this art with heart. We should all learn something from our creative neighborhood Contributors.
Learn more about The Contributor, where to find vendors, and more ways to support them: https://www.thecontributor.org/