One Step Away vendor Kyriq Medearis

One Step Away vendor Kyriq Medearis

Dan Levy/Billy Penn

‘You have a good day’: The daily grind of Philly’s One Step Away vendors

Roughly 60 vendors peddle the “homeless newspaper” around the city, earning 75 cents for every one sold.

As you approach the corner of 15th and Walnut, you can hear him call out to commuters, his voice as unmistakable as his bucket hat and dreads.

“Hey…you have a good day.”

Countless times each morning, and most afternoons, Kyriq Medearis can be found up and down the 1500-block of Walnut telling passersby to have a good day, or to stay cool or dry, armed with little more than a smile on his face and a stack of newspapers tucked under his arm.

Our interactions started like any other, with his signature salutation and never much more, until one day I overheard him telling another potential patron that he had written two articles and hoped the person would take a read. The next day, I purchased a paper.

Weeks had gone by from the first time we said hello until the day I bought that paper. And every day, another greeting.

Medearis is one of about 60 vendors for One Step Away, billed as “Greater Philadelphia’s first newspaper by those without homes for those with homes.” Printed monthly, OSA is distributed by many of its writers, each patrolling the streets with a pile of papers, hoping one leads to greater opportunity.

Emily Taylor, director of One Step Away, told Billy Penn that the number of vendors each month varies slightly, as they are an open program with people coming and going each cycle, but consists of 60 regulars. “Anyone can come to our vendor site and say they want to work,” Taylor explained.” After completing orientation, everyone receives 20 free newspapers to get started. One vendor remarked that when he came to One Step Away he didn’t even have two nickels to rub together– so for us its important to start everyone off to succeed.”

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Dan Levy/Bill Penn

The economics work like this: Vendors like Medearis purchase each paper for 25 cents and are tasked with selling the publication for $1. They keep 75 cents per paper sold, with many vendors also accepting additional donations.

“This 25 cents is an investment in themselves and their inventory,” Taylor offered. “The vendors then are micro-entrepreneurs, setting their own schedule, inventory, location.”

Medearis admitted sales differ from day to day. “It’s really tricky,” he said. “Some days it could be like 19 or 20 and some days it could be like…on Friday I sold almost 60 papers.”

Being a monthly publication, he has to move around a little, so as not to sell to the same foot traffic each day. As we spoke one morning, a woman came up to ask if the paper was new. “No, it’s the same as yesterday,” he explained. Based on the business model, he will have to wait an entire month to get that repeat business.

Medearis came to the Philly area from Atlanta, offering vague references to mistakes he had made in the past. He considers One Step Away his job. He used to be at 16th and Market, but left the program for a few years, getting one gig as a cell phone tech and another working on a lot detailing cars.

“It was like five years ago and I was going through a really tough time in my life at that point, so once I started writing for the papers, I started writing and I never stopped. I wrote for two to three years after that and I went through a little small time away — last year I did get certified as a cell phone tech, but it’s just the thing of finding work.”

When he did find work, it didn’t last.

“I felt down about coming back, I felt down. But I needed to. I know a lot of people in the city and I’m just trying to get as much help as I can toward my business. I’m trying to get a good outlook, a positive outlook.”

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That outlook shows in Medearis’ work. His sales pitch often promotes his ‘articles’ inside the paper — the same way he initially hooked me — but to be fair, they are more short essays; inspirational sayings and poems that make the reader wonder how someone in his situation can stay so optimistic.

“It makes me feel like I’m doing something. It might be a person a day who comes up and tells me they read my article. ‘I cut it out, it was inspirational and it helped me, I was going through something.’ That’s really who I do it for. The people.”

For the people. And for 75 cents on the dollar.

Truthfully, the economics don’t seem to add up. Medearis stressed that he isn’t homeless, though many of the vendors have been, at one time or another, on the street. Vendors often credit the publication with helping them find, and fund, places to stay. Medearis lives in Bear, Del. and takes the regional rail up to Philly every day for work. He said he has to wake up around 4 a.m. to catch a bus to hit the train, and gets to his corner on Walnut around 7:20 a.m. almost every weekday.

“This is my job at the moment. I write. When it comes to the articles, a lot of what I write is from the heart. They see me out here and think, ‘ah what’s he doing?’ It helps me out as a person doing this and getting a positive response from the public. Just me, I had a whole different outlook on the city once I started doing this.”

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OSA

Flip through an edition of One Step Away and see how many vendors feel the same way, crediting the paper with giving them a voice they otherwise wouldn’t have, but also giving them purpose and opportunity.

“We are a community newspaper, so anyone from the community is welcome to submit articles,” Taylor pitched. “We focus on social justice advocacy, and provide firsthand perspectives and experiences. Many of our articles are written by individuals who are formerly or currently homeless, and many of our vendors write. It is important for us to provide a voice to those who are often silenced and hear stories from people who have been there and experienced it.”

Taylor said One Step Away distributed 135,271 papers last year. That’s an incredibly specific number, and it speaks to the underlying effort of the organization. Every paper matters, because every one is another 75 cents for the vendors. Nothing, and no one, should be discounted.

And still, the math just doesn’t add up.

Medearis takes regional rail to the city, which, per Septa’s fare index, is $62.50 for a 10-trip ticket. That, plus the bus, and Medearis would have to pay about $15 per day just to get to his post. Selling 20 papers in a day would mean he breaks even. Selling 60 papers, without additional donations, would net $30 after travel costs.

Even without travel considerations, a vendor selling 60 papers would earn $45 a day. That’s $225 each workweek, or roughly $900 a month. But 60 papers, per Medearis, is a good day, not an average day.

Selling just 20 papers per day would earn a vendor less than $4,000 a year.

Based off last year’s numbers Taylor provided, the 135,271 papers would have earned vendors $101,453.25, less additional donations. That’s combined.

Remember, there are roughly 60 vendors, which means each vendor makes, on a yearly average based on papers produced and listed sale price, $1,691 a year.

“You try to get a dollar donation per paper,” Medearis explained. “Some people may give us more than a dollar. Some people might give us money and not take a paper at all. Me, myself, I’d much rather someone take a paper and see what I’m working toward and what I’m trying to produce as well. I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying to get something for nothing.”

This is a grind. In the 15 or 20 minutes we spoke, Medearis said hello to dozens of people — he made sure to interact with every young woman who walked past, which is either targeted marketing after months of on-the-job research or, merely, a perk of the trade — but he sold less than five papers, including the one sold to me.

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Dan Levy/Billy Penn

One Step Away vendors spend hours on the street each day selling papers, in hopes they don’t have to spend their nights out there as well.

Homelessness can be ugly, and those of us who walk around the city to our high-rise offices, our small businesses or our 9-to-5 shifts at the retail shop down the block all feel those pangs of guilt when walk past the same faces every day, slumped on the sidewalk holding a cardboard sign and cup.  Like many of us, Medearis sees them as a cautionary tale, but, to him, they’re also something else: Competition.

“I told one of those guys sitting with the cardboard, he came sitting here (next to me) and I said, ‘no we can’t.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, I live under a bridge.’

“I do live in a house,” Medearis proudly proclaimed, “but I have to pay bills and you’re going to take the money and you’re going to buy drugs. Me, I have to buy food and I have to pay bills. There’s…no…you gotta get away.”

“A lot of these people don’t know,” he continued. “They’re out here 24-7 and they’re using the money they collect to get high. They’re killing themselves. A lot of people feel bad, but I’d rather not give them anything and drive them to a place to get help.”

He said he has pushed others to the One Step Away program over the years, hoping it will give them the same opportunity it’s given him. That’s Taylor’s goal as well, not only to present the struggle of homelessness in a way that will resonate with the community, but to use the paper as a vehicle to help more and more people along the way.

“One of the big things One Step Away tries to do is counter the stereotypes of what it means to be homeless,” Taylor offered. “We do this by providing firsthand perspectives and experiences, and by having our vendors visible throughout the streets. Homelessness can be very isolating or demeaning, so we try and empower the vendors to take ownership over their lives.”

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Taylor knows their program isn’t a means to an end, more a first step, if you will, in that direction. “We create opportunities for people to work and better their situation. And many people take this opportunity and succeed. For other individuals this may not be the right opportunity or the right time, but our doors are always open.”

For the OSA vendors like Medearis, they hope one door opens others, to full-time employment, or seed money for a small business or, most likely, simply to buy food and pay rent and afford the regional rail tickets to get back to this grind every day until something else pops.

Like every OSA vendor you talk to, Medearis admits he’s made mistakes in life to get where he is today. But vendors like him offer that truth not to make people feel sorry for them — not for pity, or even charity — but to use it as a reminder of what they are working to become.

Someone may read this or walk by Medearis on the street and purchase a paper from him, read his essays — and the dozen of others in each edition — and witness his grind. Someone will give him a chance at something more. For now, he appreciates the human interaction, the extra dollar when a person can spare it, the container of pomegranate seeds he happily took from a woman yesterday before asking me “do I, just, eat these like this” after she was no longer in earshot.

If you make eye contact with Medearis on the street, he will undoubtedly offer you a good day before he offers you a paper. Like many OSA vendors, he’s become a part of the daily commute for a lot of us, brightening the walk as the mornings turn more brisk and gray.

“Hey, you have a good day. Stay warm,” his message changed slightly as the weather turned from summer to fall. He mentioned yesterday he is working on getting child visitation back in Georgia squared away. He said he pays more than $300 per month in child support and needs more funds so he can travel back and forth to share custody. Still, with that news, his smile even bigger than normal. For the man at the corner of 15th and Walnut who always wishes everyone a good day, his days may be getting better soon.

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