The Bill Sharpe Tragedy

| July 17, 2012 | 1 Comments

Bill Sharpe lived a life more suited for a movie than a short clip. Bill was a man of decisive action who never forgot his modest roots. Singlehandedly, Sharpe shouldered the weight of a rapidly growing homeless population in Tampa, a city that was forced to ban panhandling. The legislation followed a similar initiative incorporated by St. Petersburg one year earlier.

Like many Florida cities, the homeless gravitate to the favorable climate and to the perimeter of generous retirement communities.  Florida’s ever-growing homeless base continues to rise. In Tampa, the homeless community grew in proportion to the magnitude of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  As the movement grew, so did the homeless population. There was a noticeable difference between the 2012 homeless population and the group that existed in Tampa when we left in early 2011.

The Bill Sharpe Tragedy

Bill Sharpe

Given the fact that Tampa will host the Republican National Convention, there is a pointed effort to stabilize and reduce the homeless community. In all probability, Tampa will find itself hosting a convention that could bring back remembrances of the late 60’s.  Occupy Wall Street has deep roots in Tampa and Florida. The organization has been coordinating protest activities for the past 18 months and will be ready to announce their presence come August.

Last year, I had the pleasure to sit-in with a select group of concerned Tampa residents. These gentlemen were grappling over ways to help the homeless and keep Tampa safe. The mood was constructive. 

One person mentioned a fundraising effort. This suggestion was opposed by a participating high-level social worker.  The man silenced the group by declaring that giving money to the homeless would be the worst possible outcome.  

He pulled out a map and spread it across the table. Every center where the homeless could find a bed was identified by a red mark.  Every place that fed the homeless for breakfast was designated by a yellow mark, lunch facilities were green and dinner locations were marked in black. Because most of the churches and help centers only prepare one or two meals a week, the map was littered with colorful marks. His point was that a homeless occupant of Tampa could score a free meal three times a day, seven days a week.  The gentlemen also said that the homeless could receive emergency room treatment at anyone of several hospitals and beds and shower were available to homeless persons who registered with social services.

He concluded his case by handed us stacks of vibrant yellow business cards.  On the cards were the addresses and contact information for two places the homeless could register. Our friend said “Don’t give them money, give them this,” meaning the card. “The homeless can get anything they need by registering at social services. But, they will not come.”

We were dumbfounded. How could this be? Our guy answered, “Most homeless men and women will not come because they have to register at Social Services and there are people out there looking for them. Many homeless persons choose to slip through the cracks.”

And, then there are the non-homeless persons who take advantage of well-intended public generosity. He described to us the survival strategy of a person he knew who became unexpectedly unemployed. This person was not homeless, had money in the bank and was receiving unemployment benefits.  This man had transitioned to the ranks of the unemployed quite well.  Every day, he took a position near a bank in downtown Tampa.  He was an early riser so he caught an early bus, purchased his coffee, picked up two newspapers and arrived at his corner every day, except Saturday and Sunday, when downtown Tampa is quiet and when he and his family would visit their camp on the water. His appearance was appropriately disheveled, unshaven and untidy.

Upon staking his claim, he would settle into positions determined by the sun, pull out a shoddy looking hat and turn it upside down on the sidewalk. The first time I saw him, he was working on a crossword puzzle posted in the St. Petersburg Times.  Our friend told us that this man’s panhandling strategy was pulling in anywhere from $350 – $500 tax free per week.  This was a nice supplement for his unemployment.

This is not to say that the homeless crisis in Tampa is not real.  It is an epidemic.  It was this challenge to which Bill Sharpe responded.

When Bill arrived in Tampa, he carried a hazy past about which he rarely spoke. By all accounts, Sharpe was a fairly successful stockbroker. He served as chairman of the Pinellas Democratic Party for a year before being dismissed in1988.  Things got serious when he was convicted of selling counterfeit American Express money orders while managing a bar in Ocala.  His sentence called for two years under federal supervision. He was soon divorced.

Shortly afterwards, Bill changed fields transitioning from peddling stocks to selling recreational vehicles. In 2004, Bill launched a successful and active website dedicated to the happenings in South Tampa. His success led him to acquire the South Tampa Community News. He published this magazine until he became involved in his newest pet project, the Tampa Epoch. Earlier this year, Bill organized one of his many community events.  The biggest was the Tampa Bay Seafood Festival held at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.

The Tampa Epoch was an unusual business model. In theory, Sharpe’s efforts were to help the homeless whose pandering habits were soon to be outlawed.  Sharpe raised advertisers, developed the content and sold the newspaper to the homeless for $0.25. In turn, the homeless vendors sold the newspaper for $1.00 and were able to retain the profit.  Every day Bill distributed papers to his 300 homeless vendors. The Tampa Epoch was supported by a few investors and Bill’s ingenuity.

This Epoch scheme addressed some important challenges for Tampa’s swelling homeless population. First, it converted the panhandlers into distributors. This prevented them from being arrested for panhandling. Secondly, the distributors were issued red construction-like vests and were instructed to stop harassing motorists and police their areas when finished for the day. The safety vest made the distributors recognizable so it was determined that motorist harassment would stop. Typically drivers would summon a red-vested newspaper- carrying street vendor to their car while they were at traffic signals.

Linda Karson is an advocate and investor in the Tampa Epoch.  She hailed the initiative as a “beacon of hope,” for a lost element of society.

Sharpe quickly found himself in financial difficulty. Bill lost his Bayshore Blvd condominium to foreclosure in 2011. He was barely able to keep the Epoch in print.

The interesting life of Bill Sharpe came to a rapid end in April this year. Police found Bill’s body in his North Hyde Park office in early April 2012. Police classified his death a suicide. He was 59-years old.

John Dingfelder, a former member of the Tampa City Council and an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union declared. “This is horrific, shocking and totally surprising news.”

Karson reported that she was shocked by the tragic loss of life.  She told the Tampa Bay News that just one day prior to the tragedy she was chatting with a homeless person. From his pocket he pulled the only two cards he had, a social security card and Bill Sharpe’s business card.

Regardless of his history or failure, Sharpe provided the homeless a way to earn income and latch onto a smidgeon of dignity. Sadly, the crush of the economy was more than Bill could take.  Rather than join the legions of homeless that he had fought to help, he ended his life.

  

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  1. Ann says:

    Inciteful article! Thanks for sharing!

    [Reply]

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