Wherever Cathy Jennings is — speaking at nonprofit events, advising Metro Nashville government or connecting people to housing opportunities — she’s talking about the paper. Jennings is executive director of The Contributor, a twice-monthly newspaper sold by currently and formerly unhoused people in Nashville and surrounding areas. The newspaper works as low-barrier employment for its vendors, who buy papers for $0.25 each and sell them for $2. Through The Contributor’s other programs, people experiencing homelessness can connect to more permanent housing, employment opportunities and more.
People often assume that paying vendors without taking the paper is more helpful, but Jennings says that’s not true. By taking the paper, “you’re instilling dignity and pride in that person selling it,” says Jennings. More practically, The Contributor uses vendor sales numbers to provide proof of income for services like Section 8 housing. “We’ve had these days where we’ll go out and sell with our vendors. I last maybe two hours and they are out there in all kinds of weather. That’s one of the misconceptions: that it’s not a real job. It is a real job. They put their own skin in the game,” she says.
The Contributor currently has between 145 and 160 regular vendors. According to its website, 70 percent of vendors are housed within six months of starting to sell papers. Selling the paper is the most visible part of the operation, but it’s also a way to connect vendors with a wider net of services the organization offers. The COVER Housing Navigation Program (which launched in 2019) helps vendors obtain identity documents, health insurance, food stamps and Section 8 and Metro Development and Housing Agency opportunities. The Contributor has a number of other initiatives, too.
The organization holds a vendor breakfast at its downtown location to mark each new issue launch. “People come in for breakfast, but it’s a business meeting,” Jennings says. “We talk about what’s in the new issue. We talk about issues the vendors are facing; we have sales tips.” Sometimes the group hosts flu shot clinics, and recently the poet Joe Nolan held a workshop. “It’s just a place for the vendors to gather and have more community,” says Jennings. And they collaborate with Open Table to help produce Where to Turn in Nashville, a comprehensive guide to local resources.
The Contributor was founded in 2007; Jennings started volunteering in 2012 after seeing a vendor named Curtis on the corner Wedgewood and 8th avenues. In one of the papers she bought, she read an article about a camp clearing at Fort Negley. “I had no idea there were that many people sleeping outside,” she says.
Jennings quickly moved from volunteer to board member. By 2018, The Contributor pivoted to a magazine that vendors sold for $5. “As most people know, the magazine didn’t work. There was no buy-in from the vendors themselves or the public really,” Jennings says.
Faced with impending closure, a group of volunteers took over. “They were going to close it. We said give it to us instead,” says Jennings.
Prior to running The Contributor, she taught English at Belmont University and Tennessee State University; before that, she ran a headphone distribution company and worked as a financial planner. She says her initial volunteer team included a retired firefighter, an attorney and a retired schoolteacher. For the first year, the staff drew no salaries. But they never missed an issue, Jennings says.
As director, Jennings made a series of critical restructuring decisions. She reinstated the paper as a twice-monthly newspaper at a lower price: $0.50 for vendors, $2 for customers (during COVID, the vendor price decreased to $0.25 per paper and has remained at that rate since). She started featuring more stories about Nashville’s unhoused community in the paper: what she calls “content about them, by them and issues they face.” In 2019, The Contributor partnered with the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development to connect vendors with the SNAP employment and training program, which helps people find low-barrier workforce opportunities. Then, the organization started helping people obtain identification documents and giving out daily bus passes — another reason to regularly stop by the office, which helped with case management.
Behind the scenes, Jennings created a sustainable funding structure for the organization. “Having a financial background, it was super important to me that we could have some type of reserve funds — that we could respond to emergencies and not react to them,” she says.
Every day is different for Jennings, who spends her time meeting with staff, coordinating programs and checking in with vendors across the city, including visiting a vendor in the hospital and driving another to chemotherapy appointments.
Even when asked about her own work, Jennings is eager to talk about others: She praises her staff and volunteers, calling them the “real lifeblood” of the organization. She points out the strength of the paper’s writers and editorial team — including Nolan; Judith Tackett, former director of Metro Homeless Impact Division; and editors Linda Bailey and Amanda Haggard.
Most of all, Jennings is full of enthusiasm for Contributor vendors like Mario in Hermitage, who went on to start a lawn-care business, Maurice on Charlotte Avenue, or Johnny on the corner of Hillsboro Pike near Woodmont Baptist Church.
“Most people who come to us have really lost hope,” she says. “You have to be pretty scrappy to get yourself to come down to the church. To say: I’m going to try one more thing.”
Eleven years after her first volunteer shift, now a leader in Nashville’s organizational response to homelessness, Jennings has changed. “I thought that I was coming in to help them,” she says. “And it’s been quite the opposite. They have helped me. I did not expect to love people genuinely like I love them.”