San Diego In 1996, the San Diego Union-Tribune started its "Street-Side Hawker Sales Program" in which over 40 mostly homeless people sold copies of the daily newspaper directly to motorists at busy intersections from Mira Mesa to Oceanside. Every morning, vans operated by Union-Tribune subcontractor Upscale Sales picked up the hawkers from 12th Avenue and J Street downtown, brought them to several North County corners, and picked them up in the afternoon. For pay, the hawkers kept the 35 cents each paper sold for, plus any tips. Those who couldn't sell at least 40 papers in any given day were given a subsidy check at the end of the week. "Historically," says Mark Freeman, a film documentarist and San Diego State professor who has become an advocate for the former hawkers, "the Union-Tribune started it after the North County Times launched a similar program, Alpha Project, which is sheltered housing for people and job training. The North County Times still supports the Alpha Project by giving 12,000 papers to the Alpha Project. Sales of those papers support their treatment programs."
But in mid-August, the Union-Tribune ended its program. No mention was made of the decision in its stories or columns. An unpublished statement dated September 20, 2002, explained that after a review of the program, the newspaper's management "decided to conclude its Street-Side Hawker Program on August 19, 2002. The newspaper informed Upscale Sales, the company with which the newspaper contracted and which hired the individuals who worked in the program, of its intention on July 18, 2002. While the decision was inevitable, we regret any negative impact the conclusion of the program has had on Upscale Sales and the individuals they hired. The 30-day notice, which was part of the agreement, was intended to provide Upscale Sales with sufficient time to secure contracts with other companies, minimizing the impact to the individuals they hired. The Union-Tribune Street-Side Hawker Sales Program was initiated in 1996, created to provide an additional venue for consumers to purchase the daily newspaper. Despite the Union-Tribune's best efforts, the program fell short of its expectations and no longer justified the resources committed to it. Less than one half of one percent of Union-Tribune daily circulation was derived through sales by the street-side hawkers."
The statement went on to list other programs to assist the "less fortunate" in which the Union-Tribune participates. The Union-Tribune's Drew Schlosberg, community relations manager, didn't respond to questions left, at his request, on his voice mail.
The newspaper's statement doesn't satisfy Freeman. "The Union-Tribune says this wasn't a program to offer assistance to this group of people, but in fact it did offer employment for people who didn't have other alternatives. The guys were considered independent contractors by the paper and by Upscale. But that's one issue I'm continuing to pursue. I'm in the process of trying to get unemployment benefits for them."
Freeman's original involvement with the hawkers was as a customer. "I got to know Edmund Thompson," Freeman recalls, "who was quite a charismatic seller. He posted on the island on Encinitas Boulevard just as you approach the entrance to Interstate 5, and he was just incredibly lively and unusual. There really was a sort of community that was created around Edmund. I think he offered his customers a little freedom from their cares. People would give him things, and he talked to them about what was in the newspaper. After driving by him for a year, I finally got out of my car and got to know him and told him that I would like to make a little documentary portrait."
After finishing the documentary on Thompson in late spring of this year, Freeman took a vacation. "When I came back from my vacation in the early part of July," he remembers, "I was really flabbergasted to have Edmund tell me it wasn't going to happen anymore. So my feeling was that the Union-Tribune said, 'These guys are homeless, they don't live anywhere, they don't have any power, nobody is going to notice if we get rid of this program, and we can put the extra money in our pockets.' I felt that they ought to be more accountable to the community and for their customers. There's a lot of people who get a lot of benefit out of buying from Edmund."
Thompson, 55, who speaks very quickly, often in florid praise of God and His providence, recalls his first experience in the hawkers program. "I was living in a shelter for veterans in the Midway area. I saw a flyer on the bulletin board that said, 'Would you like to make some extra cash selling papers?' So I took the ad and I went over to 12th and J, where it said the van was going to be picking everybody up. The guy hired me right away, and I started working. At first I had no idea how to sell papers in a hawker situation. But one of the ladies from Upscale Sales who was driving the van, Anne Marie, grabbed the papers from me and said, 'This is the way you do it.' She walked up to the people like they were her long-lost cousins, smiling and happy, and in a matter of no time at all she had sold ten papers. I said, 'Whoa!' She was one of the drivers of the vans. She took a crew of around 44 of us all over. We were around North County, we were out in Mira Mesa, all over. Anyway, I took it from there and added my own little talent to it, and soon I became the number-one paper seller."
Thompson, originally from Denver, started his hawking career in Vista. But after a 7-Eleven near his selling spot complained he was cutting into their business, he moved to the median strip on Encinitas Boulevard just east of Interstate 5, which he soon dubbed Edmund's Island. "The boss told me, 'If you work this right, you can sell at least 80 papers a day here.' My first day there, I think I sold 25 or 26 papers, then I sold 40 papers, then I started adding things to my routine to get the people's attention. I wouldn't dance or sing, but I would salute the police officers, ambulance drivers, and the fire engines by taking off my hat and holding it over my heart. And I would greet people in general. I just had a knack, a flair for reaching out. I developed it by seeing how they responded to me. It was a natural thing."