Street newspaper vendors seek permit to sell on Ypsilanti sidewalks
The Ypsilanti Township Board of Trustees tabled a vote to permit homeless employees of a local street newspaper to sell papers in the township.
The vote at the board's Sept. 11 meeting came after board members voiced a range of doubts and concerns about Groundcover News's vendors selling papers along Washtenaw Avenue.
The board asked Township Planning Coordinator Joe Lawson to gather more information about Groundcover and present it at the next regular meeting in early October.
Greg Hoffman, a representative from Groundcover, said the paper is sold by “housing insecure” residents, which means people who are homeless, people who are unemployed and at risk of eviction, or those receiving government assistance but still in need of additional income.
Vendors purchase copies of Groundcover from the organization for 25 cents and sell for a suggested donation price of $1. Hoffman said vendors would stay on sidewalks and public egresses at the exits of fast food restaurants, for example.
Groundcover's vendors currently sell in Ann Arbor, the City of Ypsilanti and Dexter. They have been approved to sell in Pittsfield Township by the Pittsfield Township Board of Trustees, but Hoffman said none have begun selling there yet. There are around 110 vendors and 25 who sell daily.
Volunteers with the paper and local community members contribute articles, poetry and essays to the paper, which has been printed monthly since launching in June of 2010 and has a circulation of approximately 6,000.
Hoffman said Groundcover has received a warm reception within the community.
"We have many vendors who have regular customer bases," he said. "We have many partnerships and good relationships with the faith community around Washtenaw County and that has been one of the best vehicles for raising awareness for Groundcover News throughout the area."
Vendors are not permitted to ask for more than $1, Hoffman said, but he added customers often give tips. There is no set amount of papers vendors need to buy. Some buy just a few, while others buy and sell hundreds per week, Hoffman said.
Groundcover, a 501c3 nonprofit, provides vendors with incentives based on the number of papers they sell. Hoffman said some vendors set up at one spot regularly while others change locations, and most sell during the afternoon and evening.
He stressed that vendors’ training includes an emphasis on professional demeanor and aggressive sales are discouraged.
“We put our vendors through an orientation that includes where, when and how they should sell,” Hoffman said, adding residents sign a pledge to honor the Groundcover code of conduct, which forbids aggressive sales techniques or approaching “captive audiences” at outdoor restaurants or at bus stops.
Trustee Mike Martin said he feared a vendor could aggressively approach a resident who might be put in danger by trying to back away into a busy thoroughfare.
There also was skepticism that vendors would be able to sell newspapers in the township because of a lack of significant foot traffic. Supervisor Brenda Stumbo also said there aren’t sidewalks along Washtenaw Avenue in the township, though Hoffman said there are some — just not contiguous sidewalks.
Board members were generally concerned about having homeless residents possibly becoming aggressive in trying to sell the paper. Martin, who said he researched Groundcover, found it to be “politically charged.”
Clerk Karen Jovejoy Roe said she was in favor of granting Groundcover a temporary permit to sell in the township and make a decision about a longer permit after a trial period.
Hoffman said distributing the paper offers some financial help to vendors and provides them with other benefits.
"There is a great sense of pride for many of our vendors, who emphasize the fact that they are out there earning their income and providing a service to the community, rather than soliciting handouts," he said. "As anyone who has had experience in sales can tell you, face-to-face sells are far from easy, so our vendors also develop skills of interpersonal communication as they develop their sales pitches and customer bases."