Life-changing publisher wants hers back.
Susan Beckett changed lives when she founded the city's homeless newspaper. But she's getting tired and its future is uncertain.
Greg Owens is a Groundcover success story.
For six months, he stood outside the People's Food Co-op hawking copies of the $1 street paper that advocates for the homeless. A skinny six-foot-two West Virginian, with a drawl as soothing as warm grits, he had a gap-toothed smile for everyone who passed by and an endearing habit of ending sentences with "I'm blessed." He freely told customers he had done time for DUI and was on a tether--and even asked whether they'd like to see the tether. Some did.
Though Owens mostly sold in front of the co-op--a coveted location awarded to the paper's most successful vendors--he also hawked Groundcover at a local church before services. Sales were good there, too. (The paper costs $1 and vendors aren't allowed to ask for more, but they can accept tips if they're offered.) And then, in February, Owens disappeared. His probation over, he returned to West Virginia, where his brother hired him as a long-haul trucker.
Reached by phone, Owens said that thanks to Groundcover he made enough (he declined to say how much) to put down a deposit for his own semi. "People in Ann Arbor are generous," he says. "I'm blessed."
To sell Groundcover, vendors must be either homeless or in imminent danger of losing their housing. Most of the two-dozen or so regulars earn far less than Owens, averaging between $75 and $200 a month. Yet even those modest earnings have helped at least half a dozen vendors get off the streets or out of the Delonis Center and into rented rooms or apartments.
Rissa Haynes' friendliness and warm smile made her one of Groundcover's most popular salespeople. With health difficulties that caused her to rely first on a cane and then a walker, she has recently cut back on her selling. But when she worked regularly, Haynes says, she would usually
pull in at least $160 a month. "It made quite a difference," she says, explaining that her "income" without Groundcover relies on disability payments--which after other expenses leave her only about $14 a month for food.
"If it weren't for Groundcover, I wouldn't have nothing," says Lonnie Baker, who has held a variety of jobs but says that deteriorating vision now makes it difficult to find work. The money he earns selling Groundcover helped him move off the streets and rent a room in a friend's house. Moreover, "It gave me an incentive, a purpose."
These stories buoy Groundcover founder and publisher Susan Beckett, fifty-nine. Earnings aside, she says, the vendors gain sales skills and a sense of community from weekly meetings at the Bethlehem United Church of Christ. The handful who choose to write for Groundcover also get the thrill of seeing their work published.
Editor Lee Alexander and associate editor Andrew Nixon both get stipends, but Groundcover stays alive through the efforts of about 100 volunteers. During four-hour weekly shifts at Bethlehem church, they train prospective vendors, make name tags, and frequently, Beckett says, "make somebody a cup of coffee and let them vent."
Beckett herself was Groundcover's first volunteer: she conceived of the paper, got it off the ground, and remains its driving force. But now Beckett wants to pass on the torch: she's tired, and the nonprofit is getting too large to continue as what's essentially a one-woman show. "We've passed the start-up phase," says the former teacher and computer programmer. "We're moving into a more established, professional stage."
Groundcover, she says, has tripled its size and ad revenue every year since it started publication in July 2010. Last November, in what Beckett describes as "an average good month," the paper took in about $1,500 in sales and almost $1,800 in ads from local businesses and churches.
"When our circulation was about 2,500 [copies a month], we were losing money," Beckett says. "When we got to 3,000, we were breaking even. Now that circulation is more than 5,000, we've been able to plow back the profit into savings." Beckett hopes to soon hire a part-time business manager--allowing her to cut back from her intense volunteer stewardship of Groundcover. "If I were to drop dead tomorrow," she says, "there are way too many loose ends [for someone else to pick up] ... There's too much concentrated in just me."
But can the street paper survive without the full-time involvement of its most passionate advocate? Beckett believes it can, with a careful transition and the hiring of devoted employees.
Still, she worries. It would be different, she explains, if the paper had folded after one or two issues, because "nobody was dependent on it at that point ... now there are lots of people whose lives and housing are dependent on Groundcover."
"I feel a lot of responsibility and trepidation about messing that up."
Of medium height, her brown hair cut short, Beckett has a teacher's calm authority. Her commitment to social justice began early. She grew up in New Jersey--her father an engineer, her mother one of the first wave of computer programmers--but took to heart their stories of childhood struggles. Her mother's family fought to stay afloat during the Depression, and her father's family was persecuted in Nazi Germany before fleeing in the late 1930s, "the last time Jews could still get out."
Beckett attended the U-M but dropped out just before graduation--"the Peter Pan syndrome," she says ruefully. She worked as a computer programmer and eventually married John Beckett, who now owns the software company Retail Velocity; their daughter and son are both grown and living out of state.
Beckett eventually returned to the U-M to earn an education degree but was unable to land a permanent job; she ended up doing long-term subbing in elementary schools. Her social passion found an outlet in the Washington, D.C.-based RESULTS, a nonprofit advocacy group that, she says, is "seeking to push the political will to end poverty."
Her life took its latest turn in 2009 when she visited her daughter in Seattle. Outside a small coffee shop she saw a homeless vendor calling out, "Real Change! Real Change!" Intrigued, Beckett bought a copy of the Real Change News--and took the idea home.
At first, friends convinced her that Ann Arbor was too small to support a homeless paper. But then, at a February meeting of housing activists, several people promised to support it. In July 2010, after months of planning and talking to homeless people and their advocates, the first issue of Groundcover appeared. A Toledo homeless advocacy group, "1Matters," covered the $700 printer's bill.
Subtitled "News and Solutions from the Ground Up," Groundcover carries stories about homelessness in every issue, often local people's stories about their struggles with alcoholism, illness, and poverty. The paper has also covered some local controversies like the closing of Camp Take Notice, the homeless encampment on Wagner Road.
Yet Groundcover's overall tone is hopeful and upbeat. April's cover story described how a group of volunteers from Camp Take Notice repaired the trailer home of an ailing Ypsilanti woman. That issue also included an article on Fr. Jim McDougall's retirement as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi; news that the county health insurance program was, briefly, accepting new members; interviews with locals about their favorite poets; and a popular puzzles section.
According to editor Lee Alexander, though, the Groundcover story that created the biggest buzz was Beckett's own description of her struggle to post bail for a vendor who was arrested in Wayne County on an assault charge. Expecting a straightforward process, Beckett recalled, "in we walked, breezy and confident, toting our 10 $100 bills"--only to encounter a mire of error and confusion that delayed the woman's release for two months. The vendor is now free and back selling Groundcover, but, Beckett writes, her own "middle-class expectations of convenience, transparency, and fairness [in the justice system] were shattered."
On a Thursday night in March, about ten people show up for the weekly vendor meeting, most wearing blue Groundcover T-shirts donated by Elmo Morales. Today's theme: how to increase sales. A couple of people say they point out advertiser offers, such as the $1-off coupons from the People's Food Co-op (about 100 coupons are turned in every month, says a co-op employee). Others tell prospective customers about interesting stories in the issue, like the one about the woman who publicized inequity in America by handing out pieces of pie in Liberty Plaza. "'Read about the pie lady!'" a vendor says, imagining the sales pitch. "That's a great idea!"
When some people drift into private conversations, the teacher in Beckett surfaces. "Let's try to keep on the subject of how we use articles to sell our papers," she reminds them. When a vendor bursts in, obviously agitated, Beckett takes her outside for a calming talk.
Beckett says her least favorite part of the job is suspending vendors who break rules, like taking another person's spot or drinking on the job. And ex-vendor Greg Owens thinks Beckett needs to be tougher. "She's awesome," he says, "but she's too soft." Not cracking down on vendors who sell while they're drunk, Owens says, "hurts the image of Groundcover."
"When I'm not sure, I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the vendor," Beckett admits. But she doesn't turn a blind eye to violations: "I just today ordered alcohol [testing] strips."
Groundcover's continued growth--Beckett thinks monthly circulation might reach 8,000 this summer--is a credit to her tenacity and organizational skills. Alexander says that she's also "a very good diplomat." But while she sees herself always connected to Groundcover in some capacity, she also wants her life back. She'd like to visit her kids, see friends, and be free of those sixty-hour weeks just before publication.
A successor, she acknowledges, "will have to be the right person," someone with both business smarts and tremendous dedication. And he or she will find plenty of challenges. To support a paid staff, the paper will need "more vendors and more places to sell," says board member Veronica Sanitate.
Groundcover has expanded to Ypsilanti, where business is brisk, says Beckett. But Ypsilanti Township wants no part of the paper. Several large local stores, mostly chains, also have politely declined to permit vendors on their property.
"There's a lot of prejudice against the homeless," Beckett says, noting that businesses dislike hiring people with no permanent address. Groundcover vendors, like the homeless population at large, also include many people with addictions and/or criminal records. But, Beckett points out, "Part of what gets conflated is panhandling and homelessness. Many of the people who panhandle are not homeless.
"I've heard it's easier to panhandle than to sell Groundcover. But there's a dignity to selling Groundcover, a feeling of working for an income, as well as [the fact] that people are buying it."
"There go my favorite lady!" says a Groundcover vendor, waving at Beckett as he arrives at another Thursday meeting. Another veteran vendor, Miriam--she asked that her last name not be used--also enters in good spirits, announcing, "I'm through smoking!"
A woman introduces a newcomer, twenty-year-old Dillon Rogers. Rogers says he's from Waterford Township and moved to Ann Arbor to get help from Dawn Farm with his alcohol problem. "There wasn't a big enough support system in Waterford," he says. He's just sold his first copy of Groundcover.
Also on hand is Shelley, a lifelong Ann Arborite and a Pioneer High grad, slim, with pale blue eyes and a weary expression. Her last full-time job was answering phones at a local bank. Since being laid off in 2010, she's worked at a sub shop while cleaning offices at night. She got into selling Groundcover after meeting Rissa Haynes selling papers at a food pantry at Genesis, the shared synagogue/church building on Packard. Three months behind in her rent, Shelley decided to give Groundcover a try.
"It was scary," she says of her first few weeks on the streets, and she still takes it personally when people look away as they pass her. But the $200 or so she earns each month helps pay the bills. Her dream job, she says, would be to open her own business--a "roller rink!" she says, remembering how she loved roller-skating in high school. More realistically, an office job would look good.
The rewards of her work come, Beckett says, from "talking with the vendors when they're excited about an article they've written, or when they were able to help someone out"--she mentions Lonnie Baker, who helps frail customers cross the street--"or when they get keys to a place to stay." But does she ever wonder whether her all-consuming commitment is worth it? "At least once a month, I ask myself that."
While Beckett believes Groundcover can survive without her, others are less certain. One vendor slumped in a chair after a recent meeting, tired after hours of standing in the cold, scratches his head when asked if he could envision Groundcover under new management. "Groundcover without Susan?" he says. "I can't seem to wrap my arms around that."
This followup appeared in the June 2013 Ann Arbor Observer:
"I've been getting several calls and emails each day from people who are upset and worried," Susan Beckett emailed after our article on Groundcover News appeared in May. "Can you clarify that my passing the torch is a long-term plan and that it is starting this year with the hiring of some part-time employees?"
Our article described Beckett's desire to play a less central role in the homeless newspaper she founded. "This translates into distributing responsibility and knowledge among more people, not leaving precipitously," she writes. "At some point my husband and I might relocate but that is at least a couple of years into the future."
Beckett also disputed our statement that former vendor Greg Owens "sold 1,600 papers in a day. He never sold that much in a month! It is possible that he took in $1,600 in a very good month. This has been negatively impacting our vendors as some customers are now thinking they [the vendors] are getting rich from this."
We weren't able to reach Owens, who has left the area, but agree that we must have misunderstood him. Lonnie Baker, who now has Owens' former spot in front of the People's Food Co-op, says his best-ever month was $900. As we noted in the article, most of the paper's two dozen or so regular vendors earn just $75-$200 a month.
[Originally published in May, 2013.]