City of Champions Magazine:
Overcoming Homelessness in Pittsburgh
At the City of Champions Magazine, our mission is to provide immediate employment, advocacy, and a voice for the individuals and families who have recently experienced homelessness. Our core belief is all individuals have an intrinsic desire to succeed, but for some, life has presented obstacles which have caused the unpleasant and unnatural state of homelessness. The overarching goal of City of Champions Magazine is to empower the homeless by providing the dignity of earning a wage, and therefore, becoming a part of the solution to ending homelessness in Pittsburgh. Our strategy incorporates a highly effective business model utilized in approximately 100 cities around the world into the Pittsburgh community. Our mantra: “Equipping People to Overcome Homelessness Through Commerce.”
- People who used to beg will become ENTREPRENEURS.
- People who were desperate will become HOPEFUL.
- People who were starving will become PROVIDERS.
- People who were hopeless will become VISIONARIES.
- People who were incapacitated will become EQUIPPED.
- People who were unaccountable will become SELF-GOVERNED.
It’s been over 20 years since Pittsburgh has had a street newspaper, and I can’t wait to see the smiles on the vendors’ faces as they interact with people in town, who in the past, wouldn’t look them in the eye. I have a strong belief in the altruistic nature of mankind and I am driven by a desire to assist in making people feel loved, appreciated, and cared for. I know that I’m not alone when I say that. In fact, that’s what will make this a success. People want to help, I know they do. When you boil it down, all we’re doing here with the magazine is providing a way for people to interact and have a means where they can help their fellow neighbor in need without needing to wonder if they are doing more harm than good by just giving a handout.
When we connect with people experiencing homelessness and provide them opportunities and cast a vision for how things can be better in the future, they will want to grow, improve, and that will get them excited about life. I believe that if you are able to get people excited about life and give them the proper tools and a recipe for success, they will be willing to make sacrifices and do the work to make the world a better place and the impact is immediate! Most of the work that I do on a professional basis is about delayed gratification for the clients that I work with. I help people to save, invest, plan for the future, protect and provide for their loved ones, and give generously to causes that they are passionate about - all really great things that I love to do. The difference between that and what I get to do with the City of Champions Magazine is that with the magazine I get to equip people in Pittsburgh who have some of the greatest needs and help them to provide for themselves and their families by training them to become entrepreneurs and the impact to them is immediate and significant.
Why Does Pittsburgh Need A Magazine Like This?
I firmly believe that every city needs to have a magazine like this and I firmly believe that every person in our City who learns about what we are doing and why we are doing it will want to support our efforts. Frankly, I’m very surprised that nobody in Pittsburgh has stepped up to start a paper like this since the last one dismantled back in November of 1999. Most people don’t realize it but Pittsburgh had a street paper that was started back in 1998. The name of the paper was, “StreetVoice.” and it was headed up by then CMU Student, Brian Mendelssohn. "The reception in the city was very positive," Mendelssohn says. "We started out with 1,000 [papers] for the first publication; we sold that out in a week." Within a year, he says, StreetVoice had increased its circulation to 8,000. After a few editions, StreetVoice transitioned from a newspaper format to a magazine format since many other organizations had experienced success with the magazine format.
The “Paradigm Shift”
The general model has been such a terrific success all around the world and we are happy to do the work to bring that model here to Pittsburgh. If you ask people, most want to help people who are experiencing homelessness but some just have a negative connotation about handouts. While we are in the process of establishing our organizational structure as a 501(c)(3) non-profit, our program is not a handout. I really like the term that many groups in our industry use which is to buy the paper and give “a hand up, not a handout.” Instead of having people rely on handouts, we are equipping people, training people, and eventually we will train them to train others. Our hope is that we will help people shift their entire view of life from being ashamed that they are begging people to confidently looking people in the eyes, communicating with them, and making a sale. It’s extremely exciting to be a part of a project that will have such a significant impact on people who are in such great need.
As a business owner, how are you prepared to lead this organization?
Thankfully as a business owner with a lot of experience on nonprofit boards and leadership positions, I have built great relationships with amazing people in this city who are excited to see our vision come to fruition. I’m so grateful for the tremendous support and encouragement from so many people who share a compassion for people who are experiencing homelessness here in Pittsburgh. I’ve also wanted to write a number of books about living a meaningful and rewarding life and this is a great outlet to be able to encourage and uplift people across the city with uplifting content on a regular basis.
One of my biggest responsibilities is to set the vendors up for success by doing the marketing and public relations work so that people know and understand who the vendors are. We don’t want to show up out of nowhere and have people wonder who we are and what we are doing. Thankfully, I have the support of my wife Betsa, my business partner, Karl Ohrman, and many other community members that want to do whatever they can to help make this project a success for the soon to be vendors. I’m also working with a terrific team of college interns who share a passion and excitement for what we are doing. Another organization that has been a huge supporter of this project is Rotary District 7300. Singh Ajmani, Dennis Crawford, Sue Kelly, and other foundation board members have been extremely supportive of our efforts and I’m so grateful for them and the support that they are giving us. In addition to working with business and Rotary leaders, I’m thankful for people like Bill Flanagan of the Allegheny Conference who believes in what we are doing and is willing to help connect us with business and government leaders. When you have people like Bill behind what you are doing, it gives you more and more enthusiasm to keep pushing forward. Soon I hope to connect with Bill Peduto and his team along with the local police departments so that we can work collaboratively with them. It’s a team effort and we are agile and want to do whatever we can to make this a success here in our city.
“What are some of the biggest questions that people ask you about the magazine?”
Something that many people ask about revolves around the concern that vendors may take the money that they earn and use that money to buy drugs or alcohol. That concern is fair and well received. People that ask that have a genuine concern. As you can imagine, this is something that we too have considered and are very cognizant about. Our hope is that by giving vendors a vision of where they can be in the future and giving them a way out of the current situation they are in - they will have more incentive than ever to fight the good fight and battle addiction. Additionally, on a part time basis, we will hire experienced and qualified people that want to work with people who are dealing with addictions to help them get out of the cycle. We won’t try to replace other service providers, but we want to have in house people who can help connect people with the help that they need.
Another way to look at the issue of drug and alcohol abuse is to ask ourselves, “What would we do and how would we respond if we felt marginalized by society, abandoned by our friends, and burdened by the reality of becoming homeless?” When people have nothing to lose and nobody holding them accountable, can we expect them not to drink or do drugs? In all fairness - if anyone has a reason to numb the pain or escape the reality of their situation - it’s people who are experiencing homelessness. So instead of criticizing them, I think it’s important that we are empathetic to their situation and that we give them something to get excited about. By helping them become enthusiastic about the future we are able to hold them accountable to improving their situation for the better.
What’s your vision for the impact you will have?
First, let me say that I realize that my vision for how we will help people may be optimistic, but frankly, my optimism is what drives me to keep pushing forward even when we hit difficulties along the road. But I like to break down the numbers based upon us having 100 active vendors.
If 50 of those vendors sell just 10 magazines per day that would be a total of 500 magazines per day. If 40 other vendors sell 20 magazines per day, that adds up to 800 magazines per day. Lastly, if we have 10 high performing vendors sell 30 magazines per day, that’s a total of 300 magazines per day. The daily total with those numbers, which I think are very possible, would be 1,600 magazine per day. If we assume that they take some days off and work 25 days per month, that would add up to 40,000 magazines per month. Based upon a profit per magazine of $4.25 (Buy each magazine for 75 cents and sell for $5.00) that would add up to a total monthly impact of $170,000 per month to provide immediate employment and impact to people experiencing homelessness. On an annual basis that would add up to $2,040,000. Over $2 Million dollars! That’s amazing and we think that it’s reasonable. It would be an average of about $1,700/month of income for 100 people. That’ pretty awesome. Then once people become more stable and are able to get on their feet, we want to help them transition to new opportunities. We don’t want people to treat this as a career, but we want to provide an opportunity for people who need it to get back on their feet.
Money isn’t everything and money money certainly does not guarantee happiness - but there is a certain amount of money that people need in order to live a life where they can provide food, shelter, and basic entertainment for themselves and their loved ones. We believe that we can help people provide for those basic needs and help people grow, be challenged, and prosper now and into the future.
For us it’s about transformation. We want people who were begging to become entrepreneurs. We want people who are desperate to become hopeful. We want to take people who are hopeless and help them to become visionaries. Furthermore, we are taking an entire population of people who are not held accountable and we are helping them to become self governed. To us, that is extremely important not just for the vendors, but for the community as a whole.
As a city, we need to realize that the negative consequence of stable and increasing home values is that it becomes easier and easier for people to become displaced from their homes. According to a January 2018 article from Marketwatch.com, millions of people in America are one paycheck away from being in the streets. Many people have a safety net of support such as friends and relatives - but many people don’t have that luxury.
What inspired you to pursue this project?
While I personally believe that God has been preparing me for this project over the course of my entire life, there was a triggering event recently that sparked the project on. One of my best friends, Milan recently invited me to join him in a community outreach that he helped to organize with some members at our church. The team had prepared hot food, refreshments and snacks to provide to anyone who was interested. Though everyone was welcomed to join us, we were hoping to help provide for people in need and have the opportunity to talk with them, encourage them, support them, and even pray with them if they were interested.
One of the gentlemen that we met said that he was formerly a teacher but a DUI caused him to lose his teaching license. In addition to losing his job, his marriage fell apart and without a safety net to fall back on, he lost his income, assets, and his home. It was a very rough situation but as we spoke with him he told us that one of his goals was to provide a voice for people who have experienced homelessness. When I heard him talk about this interest of his, I asked him if he had ever heard of the newspapers and magazines written in part and sold by people experiencing homelessness and I was astonished to hear that he had never seen them or heard about them. At that point, my mind started to connect all the dots between friends, contacts, community members, etc and I knew that not only was this possible - but this had to happen. And here we are just about a month away from launching our first edition.
“100 Percent Pittsburgh” and our hopes for a “City of Champions Magazine Day”
One of our hopes is that we can work with the City of Pittsburgh to declare a “City of Champions Magazine Day.” A proclamation like that would be amazing and would communicate that as a city, we care about everyone - especially those who are going through tough times. Another blessing from a timing standpoint is that The Pittsburgh Foundation is focused on an initiative called, “100 Percent Pittsburgh.” One of their goals is to connect every member of our community with opportunity and we are deeply driven by the same principle. We hope to work with them and their “Small and Mighty” program to allow us to get the funding and support that we need to have a lasting and significant impact on people who need it most.
Do you think people will pay $5?
I sure hope so! Price is only relevant in the absence of value and I can assure you two things - First, anyone and everyone will obtain far more than $5 of value by purchasing and reading the magazine. Secondly even though we may not sell as many magazines as we would if we sold them for $2 per magazine - we don’t think we will lose 50% of our potential buyers. Therefore, $5 per magazine makes good business sense and it allows us to make a more significant impact without the additional logistical pressures that we would have if the vendors had to sell twice as much volume to make the same amount of money. I realize that people don’t always have $5 cash on them so we will also allow people to purchase the magazine through Venmo.
Pittsburgh’s Call to Action!
Somebody once said that we will be judged as a community and as a society based upon how we treat the least fortunate and most vulnerable among us. Will we continue to just ignore the needs around us? Or will we become more attentive to the needs of others above our own? It’s not a question of whether or not people can afford to buy a magazine for $5. 99% of people working in downtown Pittsburgh have the means to buy a $5 magazine. City of Champions Magazine simply provides community members a way to spend just $5 per month on a magazine that will change people’s lives. Sales is tough, there is no doubt about it, but when you buy one of our magazines from a vendor and do so with a smile and an encouraging word, you may be the tipping point in changing that vendor’s life forever. You will never know the ripple effects that you will have on countless lives, all because you supported a vendor. It’s a beautiful thing!