Giving a Voice to the Voiceless, The Amplifier tells Stories of the Streets

The logo for the Amplifier features a Sunsphere atop stacks of newspapers. It’s clever.

For an anonymous source in a story run in The Amplifier, Knoxville’s street paper, the day began like any other. He woke up, walked to his car while waving to his neighbor, John. Today though, John was distraught. The city was throwing away his home.

John did not live in a house with a lawn, a mailbox and a fence. He lived off the side of a road downtown, in a tent where he kept some of the things he used to get through the day and slept during the night. Although it lacked something as basic as running water, John tried to make it a home.

“Nothing was dirty. Nothing was broken. Nothing bad or frightening or disruptive was happening here,” Ryan-Ashley Anderson, Managing Editor of The Amplifier, described the scene in her recent article on the incident.

John and his neighbor were working to reclaim John’s home by trying to meet with city officials and discussing their issues, but their work seemed hopeless. Neither expected much to come of their pleas; by the time Anderson ran her report, they were used to being unheard.

The Amplifier seeks make sure John, his neighbor, and the rest of the homeless community are heard. This street paper, one of 120 papers across 40 countries, seeks to provide a platform for the Knoxville homeless community to speak on policies affecting them, describe their issues, and voice their concerns.

Its publisher, Eddie Young, brought the idea back home from a trip to Scotland.

“What a street paper can do is speak from the perspective of those who are actually experiencing homelessness,” Young said. “It provides the other side of the story.”

Homelessness is a hard problem to define, much less quantify. Some homeless people may be housed through friends or family, or couch-surf between houses. Others may live on the street. For some, their situation is the result of mental or physical illness or disability; others have not been diagnosed with anything. Some may actively seek support services and are open to being logged in a demographic database like the Knoxville Homeless Management Information System (KnoxHMIS), run by UT professor David Patterson, who could not be reached for an interview. Some never seek support.

In 2016, 9,373 people sought services from places like Knox Area Rescue Ministries (KARM), or the Community Action Committee. Of those, 7,877 had no place to call home. Of the rest, half were at risk of losing housing. However, only 440 of those people were chronically homeless. The rest had been homeless for less than a year.

Of the KnoxHMIS clients, 54 percent indicated they had a disability –disabilities were physical for only 8 percent of clients. The rest were likely mentally disabled or had been previously diagnosed.

Less than a financial issue — homeless is more likely to be caused by trauma, according to research conducted by advocacy organizations.

A study from the National Center on Family Homelessness found two indicators to determine if a person was likely to have stable housing for two-and-a-half years after a traumatic event. For the first fifteen months, those factors were employment, education level, health and self-esteem. The next fifteen months were only self-esteem and the severity of trauma. The study found 93 percent of homeless women were likely to have histories of trauma.

“We use sort of a vendor method (to distribute The Amplifier),” Young said. “That vendor method is ideally intended to engage someone who is experiencing homelessness or has experienced homelessness with somebody in the mainstream. We can make papers and distribute them all around, but we want that interaction — we want people to speak with and engage with somebody who is experiencing homelessness.”

The Amplifier’s distribution system is a method for people to get a better understanding of homelessness by interacting with homeless people directly.

People who experience trauma can isolate themselves from others, exacerbating early symptoms into full-blown mental illnesses, which can jeopardize people’s abilities to maintain housing, jobs or relationships.

Eight years ago, during a city council and mayoral election, the city’s Ten-Year Plan to solve homelessness was shelved. The plan included efforts to increase civic involvement across faith-based organizations, businesses and neighborhoods in providing care for the homeless community. More resources for the KnoxHMIS was planned. It also sought to improve Knoxville’s crisis response system to prevent people from becoming homeless after traumatic events.

Young said that the plan was abandoned without consulting the homeless community, and new plans were being drafted without input from the people they would affect most. He said homeless people had no voice on the matter.

“We just felt like if you’re going to discuss these issues that have to deal with homelessness, you ought to give those who are experiencing homelessness a chance to speak into it,” Young said. “It’s like having me sit in a room full of people and everyone’s asking ‘what do we do about Eddie?’ but Eddie doesn’t get to speak.”

He began The Amplifier so that there would be a platform for the homeless community to voice their opinion on city council’s new plans. Young facilitated support from the Knoxville Homeless Collective, a part of the East Tennessee Peace and Justice Center (ETPJC), for which he also acts as Executive Director.

The paper began as a way to illustrate and profile mayoral candidates and city council members, with a focus on their stances towards homelessness. Along with the launch of the paper, Young helped organize forums where candidates and council members spoke with the homeless community, as well as participate in voter registration drives.

“Together with the forums and the drives, we were encouraging and recruiting the homeless community to get out and vote,” Young said. “Once you find out where these guys are on these issues, then you ought to make a vote. This your thing; it’s important to you.”

As time wore on, The Amplifier became less of a political platform, and more of a publication covering the general homeless community — a voice for the homeless. Writers penned stories about people’s lives under bridges and their experiences working with support services, along with typical political coverage. A recent series focuses on KARM’s treatment of homeless people in their facilities and the programs it requires homeless people to sign up with.

One of the Amplifier’s earlier papers — the style has changed in modern iterations.

Young developed a team of consistent volunteer writers and photographers. He also recruited a team of distributors, who would sell the paper at the side of the street for a dollar. He gives vendors ten free copies of each issue, and then requests they purchase new copies to distribute at ten dollars per stack.

After a yearlong hiatus, he returned recently to publish issue 47, in which he helps examine KARM’s business and nonprofit practices.

Young said he believes the paper helps overcome the stigma around giving homeless people money. While people may be less than inclined to give someone some spare change if they are sitting at the side of the road with an empty cup due to negative stereotypes around homeless people, Young believes that people may be more inclined to give spare change if it looks like someone is working.

“A lot of people will give to our vendors and take multiple copies of the same issue,” Young said. “There’s a lot of folks out there who do want to give, they really do want to help somebody out, but they just can’t get past just giving somebody some money who’s asking for it because they’re terrified of what they might use it for.”

However, the vendors are not technically selling anything. They operate similar to the Salvation Army, in that they solicit donations and offer items in exchange. The Amplifier just allows vendors to keep the money.

Vendors are not budding capitalists to Young — they are ambassadors for the homeless community.

The paper encourages vendors to find a space with a lot of pedestrian traffic and to stand there consistently — unofficial beats. The vendor method also cuts through the isolation homelessness can cause. By being out in public and talking to the same people in vendors’ preferred spots, homeless people can step out of seclusion and begin rebuilding their lives by encountering the same people and eventually breaking the ice with them.

However, Young does not want that to be the only reason the paper exists.

“We hope they (the audience) read the paper,” Young said. “It exists to educate and inform the public, so we hope that they read it.”

Young does not believe that the paper should be a substitute a job for homeless people. Instead, he wants it to be a platform for homeless people to have a voice. He wants to people to read the paper they purchase, so that those who are not homeless can understand what it can be like without a stable place to live.

He wants The Amplifier to remind Knoxville that homelessness is not a statistic or a political issue, but rather the homeless community is made up of people with difficult lives.

It is printed for the entire Knoxville community, not just the homeless one.

“We rarely produce content for the homeless community,” Young said. “I’m not even sure how much of the homeless community reads the paper. I’m not even sure how much the vendors read the paper … what we’re more interested in is providing content that educates the broader community, deconstructs some of the stereotypes and myths, and sort of pivot that narrative on behalf of the homeless community.

“Our goal is always to find content that is generated from the homeless community, but that is extremely difficult to do. It still remains one of our ideals. It’s just difficult because when you’re homeless, your life just doesn’t run in a rhythm, in a straight line like ours do. Actually having even access to a computer where you can write, or even just finding the time or even the motivation to do it can be difficult.”

Young said that he is trying to rebuild the team he had previously. While he has been able to contact some members of the old team, others have left town or have simply been difficult to get in contact with.

However, Young says that he plans to keep publishing The Amplifier. For Young, the homeless community deserves to have a paper landing at the doorstep of street-side suburbia, and to be heard by the rest of the community.

“Everybody has their platform through which they can speak,” Young said. “Service providers, they have their websites, their radio and television commercials, their billboards — they have all these ways through which they can speak to the public … but the homeless community does not really have a venue through which they can say, ‘this is our side of the story.’”

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