The Contributor and the homeless

the homeless gather to show their success

In Nashville, we have this thing called The Contributor. It's a newspaper run and distributed by homeless and formerly homeless people, and while it's still young, it's kind of amazing to see some of the things it's done.

We've watched people on the corners go from begging, to selling papers, showing up in uniform, and developing regular customers. The Nashville citizens have become comfortable with spending the money, knowing that the individuals selling the paper are working with a reputable organization. And people are beginning to be able to support themselves, find housing, and begin laying a foundation for a better life.

Here are a couple of things the Contributor has demonstrated.

1) Homeless people are willing to work.

There's a persistent idea that the homeless are only that way because they are lazy or unwilling to put forth the effort normal people do. There are all kinds of issues that I don't fully understand, but these people are demonstrating the willingness to work, and to work hard, hours a day, in a relatively humble role.

2) Homeless people aren't secretly rich.

For years, I've heard people talk about beggars on the corner going home to expensive cars and big-screen TVs. I'm sure that happens sometime, somewhere, but that is obviously not the case here. And the hundreds of Contributor affiliates across Nashville show us just how many genuinely needy people there are, willing to better themselves if given the chance.

3) Capitalism can solve some unusual problems.

In a way, the Contributor is a triumph of capitalism applied to social problems. The same techniques that drive McDonald's success are working to improve the lives of the homeless. By having a product, the role of these individuals is changed from beggar to small-time entrepreneur. They're no longer asking for charity, they're providing a service. And through the Contributor's branding, potential customers come to expect a basic experience, in which they can feel good about the money they are giving.

I think this effect has had more impact than anything. When I see the Contributor being sold, I know that the individual selling it is putting forth an effort to have a decent life. I know that they're not scamming me. I know that they're involved with other people in creating a positive environment in and around Nashville. I'm beginning to see some of them show up in branded tshirts, and I see them taking pride in their efforts and their work.

And I, for one, am proud of them.