CFMT Grantee: Hit hard by tornado, COVID-19, The Contributor vendors continue selling

UPDATED 03/01: The following story includes original reporting, as well as updated information provided by CFMT and The Contributor’s executive director, Cathy Jennings.

The Contributor is a nonprofit street newspaper, published bi-weekly, and has been a part of Nashville’s fabric since 2007. People experiencing homelessness and poverty are welcomed to become a vendor, and start their own micro-business buying papers from the organization for 50 cents and selling them to the public for $2. When you take the paper, you can read about issues that affect the homeless community, and the words of vendors themselves. Vendors can use their Contributor sales as proof of income to help them get into housing and other resources. But perhaps the most important outcome of The Contributor is the relationships that vendors and their customers form.

The Contributor received a $5,000 grant to provide Contributor vendors in Nashville and Hermitage with replacement tents, blankets, medicine, and groceries that they lost in the March 2020 tornadoes.

They are our most visible of the too-often invisible.

Omnipresent on street corners and near grocery stores and the like throughout the area, they are vendors of The Contributor, Nashville’s award-winning though financially lean biweekly newspaper that has allowed the homeless and formerly homeless Nashvillians to create a source of income and perhaps a path to a regular roof over their heads.

If you don’t think the homeless population is affected by the likes of tornadoes and a COVID-19 pandemic, think again.

When deadly tornadoes roared through Middle Tennessee in the early hours of March 3, a homeless camp under the Jefferson Street Bridge took a direct hit. Tarps, tents, sleeping bags left the campsite a pile of rubble.

Homeless advocates and organizations such as The Contributor, The Bridge Ministry, Shower The People and Shower Up soon were on the scene, providing meals, supplies, haircuts and showers.

Many of the homeless population, in turn, were helping their neighbors — some of whom had lost their homes in mere minutes as the tornado roared through North Nashville, Germantown and East Nashville, leaving destruction in its wake.

Tornado destruction at a homeless camp under the Jefferson Street bring was captured by a vendor for The Contributor.

Cathy Jennings, Executive Director of The Contributor, took time to answer a few questions from The Community Foundation:

CFMT: How are you using, or planning to utilize, the tornado emergency response grant?

The Contributor: We immediately began purchasing grocery gift cards for the vendors that not only were displaced in the storm (housing damaged or tents gone) but also vendors who sold in the areas that were damaged. Their income was obviously affected as everyone was dealing with the physical and emotional aftermath of those storms. We also helped replace tents for our vendors under the bridge, provided rides to our vendors in the Hermitage area, delivered groceries, and even [provided] a few hotel rooms, though the city was very good about that.

CFMT: In light of changes in how we all live and work due to the COVID-19 coronavirus, how is your organization managing to work in supporting tornado relief and recovery efforts? What challenges have you all overcome or are overcoming?

The Contributor: The tornado, then COVID-19, was a massive hit to the income of our vendors, who sell papers on the streets, which are now empty. The relief efforts have just continued. We have taken a multi-prong approach:

  1. We have subscriptions online for three months and 12 months, where you can designate your vendor and even tip.
  2. We have a Vendor Relief Fund. 100% donations provide direct financial assistance to vendors. So far we’ve disbursed over $5,000 in grocery cards and will continue to disburse over $1,000 a week as long as we can. We have also instituted a rent-assistance fund.
  3. We launched a beautiful digital edition alongside our regular print edition and signage for vendors. This gives vendors options. They can either sell to cars (wearing masks and gloves we provide); OR they can hold signage (which we provide) telling their customers to Venmo them for the digital edition (a totally hands-free transaction); OR they can shelter at home (many of our vendors have underlying health issues) and use social media to encourage customers to buy subscriptions and Venmo.

Regarding tornado relief, our entire staff volunteered at some point in the cleanup efforts. We have a close association with The Salvation Army, so we cooked in the kitchens and served food from their trucks Many of our vendors also helped.

CFMT: Give a favorite example or two of your staffers or volunteers stepping up to make a difference to help people through these disasters?

The Contributor: Mario Martinez, one of our newspaper vendors, was out cutting trees in Donelson. Michael Reilly, a volunteer, went and cooked at the Salvation Army. And Hannah Herner has been our hero staff member/reporter. She’s staffing the office and going to Kroger to buy all these grocery cards.

CFMT: In terms of tornado relief and recovery, what needs remain in your community or communities for tornado relief and recovery?

The Contributor: Between the tornado and COVID, our vendors have been hit hard. I’m particularly worried about the vendors who have worked their way into housing, and The Contributor is their primary source of income, as well as our vendors with health issues. I am grateful to the community who continues to support them, buying issues — both digital and paper — and contributing to our Relief Fund. We need continued donations/grants for groceries, rent, and medicine for our 175 active vendors.

CFMT: Define the word “hope” for you and your organization.

The Contributor: Hope is our Nashville Neighbors. We have been blessed by the relationships our vendors have made with their customers. These relationships will sustain us as a community. We look out for each other in Nashville, and I am grateful to say that includes Contributor vendors.

Follow up with Cathy Jennings, Executive Director, The Contributor

CFMT: From your organization’s perspective, what progress has been made since the March 2020 tornadoes, and what more still needs to be done for survivors?

The Contributor: The population we serve — chronically homeless — rebound quickly.


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