'The Amplifier' Hits Knoxville's Streets

The new newspaper is by, for, and about Knoxville's homeless

Eddie Young is clear about what he does not want his new street newspaper to be.

"It's not that we want to give the homeless a voice," says Young, pastor of service and "holistics" at Redeemer Church of Knoxville in Fort Sanders. "They have their own voices. We just want to turn up the volume on their voices. We don't need to give them anything to say, we just need to let them be heard."

Hence the name of the paper, The Amplifier, which is now being distributed by homeless vendors around downtown and the Strip section of Cumberland Avenue. The first issue came off the presses Friday evening, and Young hopes it will be followed by a new edition each month. (It bears a cover price of $1, but because it's a non-profit enterprise, that is technically a donation.)

Modeled on similar street papers in other cities, like The Contributor in Nashville and Streetvibes in Cincinnati, The Amplifer has a double function. Editorially, it aims to provide discussion of issues and concerns of the local homeless population, as often as possible in their own words. More concretely, it gives vendors selected and trained by Young a way to both make a little money and engage with the general, non-homeless public in a new way.

Not that Young wants it to be seen as some kind of jobs program—"We're not trying to turn these guys into good little obedient capitalists," he says. His aims are more social than commercial. "Even more than these guys have a chance to earn money, for me it's that these guys need to be re-engaged in a human way," says Young, who runs the church's Redeeming Hope Ministries, focused on the homeless. "If that can happen, I think this has a good chance of success."

The first issue is 16 broadsheet pages, most of them filled by Young and the paper's staff of volunteers. It includes an article about the newly renovated Minvilla Manor on North Broadway, the first "permanent supportive housing" location in the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. There is also a timeline of the Ten-Year Plan itself, though Young seems wary of dwelling too much on that political morass. "I don't see us getting on that whole bandwagon, because that does just address a small portion of the [homeless] community," he says.

And then there are articles, poems, and illustrations from and about the homeless themselves. In a first-person essay called "Karen's Story," Karen Lane, a 43-year-old woman from Sweetwater, talks about her cocaine addiction, her life on the streets, and her love for her two daughters. In "Homeless No More," Amplifier contributor Justin Judson profiles Arthur "Bull" Thompson, a disabled man who was homeless in Knoxville until recently being approved for an apartment downtown.

The paper's production staff, including editor Leslie Judson, currently comes from members of Young's church. But Young aims to recruit volunteers from across Knoxville—they need not be church members, or even Christians. As for the content, he says he hopes that as the paper is distributed through the homeless community, more people will submit stories, poems, photographs, and artwork.

"We've not done a heavy solicitation for homeless contributors for the first issue," he says. "As we gain traction with this paper, the aim is that the weight of it will begin to shift more heavily to the homeless themselves."

He's starting with a small crew of vendors, who can be identified by their Amplifier aprons, name tags, and satchels—mostly people Young already knows through his ministry. One of them is David Blankenbeckler, a 48-year-old Blount County native who says he has been homeless since a back injury in 2002 led to him losing his drywall business and his house. He started distributing The Amplifier on the corner of Gay Street and Wall Avenue last weekend. "What I'm hoping it'll do is increase awareness between the homeless and the public," he says. "To let them know we're not all alcoholics or drug addicts."

He says passers-by have been receptive to the idea of the paper, though he says with a shrug, "Nobody's getting rich doing this."

The vendors buy the papers from Young for 25 cents a copy, and then can keep whatever donations they receive for them. Young starts each vendor off with 50 copies upfront. The press run for the first month's issue is 5,000, at a production cost of about $1,100. Eventually Young hopes to sell advertising, but for now costs are covered by charitable contributions. He says he has no idea how big the market for the paper will be. The Nashville paper has a circulation of 45,000-plus a month, but Knoxville is one of the smallest cities to attempt to introduce a street publication. "What I'd love to see is two weeks into it, going back and having to print off another 5,000 copies," Young says.

As awareness of the paper spreads, he and his vendors hope it becomes something Knoxvillians begin to seek out.

"What our hope is," Blankenbeckler says, "once they get familiar with us being out there, then they might start coming up to us. Before we ever go up to them."