Emily Taylor: One Step Away
I’ve been creating photo essays for four years. I’m always looking for inspiring stories that my readers and I can grow from. A core area of interest is social justice and within that I have a special focus on homelessness.
Going into 2018 I wanted to do something new. In thinking about my work over these years I realized that I’ve met some very amazing people who go above and beyond to make a difference for others. Many forgo more lucrative jobs in order to follow their passion for doing good. Most often their stories go untold, but I want to change that for a group of “Amazing People Who Make A Difference”. This first story is dedicated to Emily Taylor, Director of One Step Away- Philadelphia’s street newspaper. My thanks to Emily and to those that follow for allowing me to tell their stories- these are not people who seek adulation, rather they avoid it. But their example can be an inspiration and motivation for others.
I have a personal stake in this story because I’ve been doing volunteer photography and writing stories for One Step Away for three years. I have such admiration for Emily and for the vendors who go out every day to sell the newspaper.
In the fall of 2014 I began to investigate homelessness in Philadelphia. Having pretended that homelessness didn’t exist for so many years, I hoped that my camera would bring me closer to this disgrace in society. It didn’t take long before I encountered "One Step Away", Philadelphia’s monthly street newspaper that advocates for people experiencing homelessness and joblessness.
Street newspapers are a phenomenon in many cities around the world. They’re sold by “vendors”, many who have experienced homelessness, and some who still do. One Step Away is filled with articles about homelessness and other topics related to social justice. One Step Away also gives voice to the vendors whose articles and poetry are a staple in every issue. Vendors are readily apparent on Philadelphia streets wearing their yellow vests and name tags. They purchase the newspaper for $0.25 and distribute it for $1.00- many people give more.
It’s remarkable that diligent vendors, who work in all weather and face the inevitable feeling of being invisible to the public, can earn enough to cover, or at least contribute to, the cost of food and housing.
Vendor Joseph projects a warm smile to his customers; the cover story about the Women’s March on Washington is an example of social justice topics covered by One Step Away.
On its face, this would seem to be straight forward: One Step Away prints a newspaper and vendors sell to the public. But it’s far from straight forward. One Step Away’s success and very survival sit on a razor’s edge, delicately balanced by the guiding hand of its director, 30 year old Emily Taylor. This photo essay is a tribute to Emily who has made One Step Away a force for good in Philadelphia.
One Step Away Was Literally Built Overnight
One Step Away is a program of Resources for Human Development (RHD.org), a large Philadelphia based organization that provides a wide range of human services to the most vulnerable members in society.
In 2009 Bob Fishman, then the RHD CEO, met a vendor selling "Street Sense", Washington DC’s street newspaper. Bob was intrigued that by selling a newspaper, homeless people could earn a meaningful living. He asked RHD’s Marketing and Communications Department, that just happened to be staffed by former newspaper people, to create a street newspaper for Philadelphia. Kevin Roberts, Communication Manager for RHD and part of the original One Step Away team, recalls: “Our first meeting about it was in October 2009 and the first issue came off the presses on December 15!”
The original model for One Step Away was having residents of RHD shelters produce and sell the paper. As to the name, Fishman wrote in the first issue: “In this economy, many wage-earners are One Step Away from being where those in homeless shelters are… but homelessness is not a terminal condition. Many of those in our shelters are One Step Away from leaving it behind.”
One Step Away had immediate impact on shelter residents: “Right away you could see this was transforming people because they now had a way to be heard; they would write something and it would get published; it changed their lives.” (Kevin Roberts)
RHD’s new street newspaper got off to a great start- but the question was how to sustain it. Running One Step Away out of the Marketing and Communications Department was not a long term solution- the newspaper needed a dedicated owner.
“One Step Away needed to be on the street, near shelters- you have to work with people in a very direct way that we weren’t capable of doing from this office; it was clear that we needed a director.” (Kevin Roberts)
There was this 22 year old RHD intern- Emily Taylor. She was known to be very smart and could get a lot done- but could she run the program? She didn’t have newspaper experience, and could she handle the population? By the nature of their life experience, people who have experienced homelessness can become very hardened: “She’s so young!”
Originally Emily had the title of Development Coordinator: “Bit by bit she took more out of our department and was running it the way it should be; she had a great vision for what One Step Away could become.” (Kevin Roberts)
Two major advancements were made under Emily’s leadership: she changed the vendor model from people in RHD shelters, to a vendor corps of people from the streets of Philadelphia- anyone could sign up to be a One Step Away vendor. And she moved One Step Away to the heart of Philadelphia at the Arch Street United Methodist Church (one block North of City Hall). Emily’s leadership had taken hold and One Step Away was on its way to becoming a lifeline for so many people who would otherwise slip through the cracks.
A homeless person on an early Philadelphia morning. The street sign “END ONE WAY” is emblematic of One Step Away: there is more than one way, a better way, for people who want to rebuild their lives while avoiding the shelter system which can be so demeaning.
Emily Taylor- In Her Own Words
Emily Taylor sat for an interview in her home office, aka dining room. She acknowledged the disarray in her apartment: “One Step Away simply consumes all of my time.” She’s a graduate of James Madison University (Virginia) with a major in communications and a minor in writing and rhetoric, a background well suited to her future role at One Step Away: “Born and raised in Philly, I thought I hated city life; but as soon as I graduated, I moved straight back.”
What interested you about the work of RHD: “When I first came out of school I worked for City Year, a national non-profit, that goes into schools to tutor and mentor children- that’s when I saw you could make a career out of non-profits; I joined RHD in 2010 as an intern in several programs including Marketing and Communications where I worked on Knock Out Homelessness (the annual fundraiser that keeps One Step Away afloat).”
What was One Step Away like when you took over the program: “When I got the job there were 5-10 vendors selling a few thousand papers a month; the program was running a $25,000 deficit- that’s what I inherited.” Emily’s drive to build One Step Away soon took hold and the program grew: “Today we have about 60 vendors selling 12000-15000 papers each month.”… Most importantly, 60 people are earning money to help them put a roof overhead and food on the table.
Mounds of One Step Away newspapers ready for vendors to hit the streets of Philadelphia.
One Step Away has just two employees- how is the work structured and how many hats do you wear: “We divide it by departments: I do marketing and communications, fundraising, business development, human resources, strategic planning, graphic design, writing, budgeting, and financials; my colleague Jim Irby is the Social Enterprise Manager which means managing the vendor site- distributing papers to vendors and building relationships between the vendors, businesses and the community.”
Emily laughs as she describes all the hats she wears: “Along with everything else, I produce the newspaper myself and that’s one week a month.”
One Step Away is about so much more than the newspaper itself- it’s about the vendors who have experienced homelessness and joblessness for so many reasons: loss of job, having a record, not having I.D., mental or physical illness, addiction, and more- so are you their employer, coach, mentor, employment counselor, parent, psychologist: “Firstly, I’m not an employer- they are freelance newspaper vendors… My relationship depends on the vendor’s needs- how much they want to share or want help; we have vendors who have been with us for 5-6 years; when you’ve had a relationship for that long it kind of changes things- one of the vendors once said ‘we’re like a dysfunctional family’.”
What brings people to One Step Away: “We serve a population that isn’t being served by other avenues; Philly has a really good homeless system, but if you can’t be or don’t want to be in that system, then getting services is hard; sometimes traditional employment doesn’t work for people for many reasons- some people don’t have I.D. or they don’t have a place to shower or don’t have clean clothes, so it can be difficult to go to a job or be prepared for a job interview- we offer something to those people who need it.”
Can anyone be an One Step Away vendor: “Yes- people are amazed that they don’t need an I.D. and having a record is not an issue; I like that we can be so flexible, that we can offer an opportunity often not available to many marginalized people… I remember one Vendor For A Day (volunteers experience selling One Step Away), I had a vendor present to the group: ‘When I got to One Step Away I was living on the street and didn’t have two nickels in my pocket; One Step Away was huge because not having an I.D. and no mailing address limits job opportunities’… We offer a unique ‘no-barrier’ opportunity for people to get work.”
“The vendor site is open M-W-F from 10:00 to1:00- that’s where we are and that’s what we do; if a vendor wants to improve their life, we’re here for that; we’re also here if things aren’t going the right way for them- we’re flexible to their needs.”
I’ve seen you take a firm stance with vendors: “I’ll call out a vendor if they come in drunk: ‘No, you’re not getting papers.’… If I see a former vendor who is panhandling, I’ll say: ‘Hey dude, what are you doing- our door is always open- come back to us- come talk- if you need help we can try to direct you!’… We’re not a social service, but it’s hard to watch; I’ll try to provide whatever support vendors need, but I’m not a mental health professional, so directing people to the professionals is the best I can do.”
Being firm when needed is more than balanced by her warmth: Emily speaks with a vendor and his guest vendor partner at the annual Big Sell Off- civic and business leaders volunteer to sell One Step Away newspapers… The typical statement from guest vendors: “It’s a humbling experience!”
How has One Step Away evolved over the last seven years: “For the first year or two, the vendor corps would be completely different every month- I thought it would be that way, people coming in and out; but things started to change and vendors stayed with the program year after year and that seemed great; but after a few years I began to think that vendors were getting stuck and in fact we began to see some vendors fall back, like not showing up or starting to drink again- that’s not what we wanted.”
What then is your vision for One Step Away: “We teach life skills, job skills, and career skills; if people are just coming off the street we talk about basic presentation- being clean, being sober, being ready to work; if they aren’t eating or don’t have a place to sleep we surely aren’t going to be talking about a career path; we want this to be a safe place where people can come for support so they can build themselves up.”
“What we are trying to do now is work with vendors to develop specific skills that can be transferrable; we want to offer more opportunities for vendors to move up within the program: some vendors are interested in writing and newspaper development, some are interested in promotions and marketing, some are interested in talking to people who are currently homeless: ‘I was there and know how it feels’.”
“We recently created a 15 neighborhood zone system within Philly where we want to have a positive and consistent presence; we created team leaders who support a group of four; we also have entrepreneurs who will go to different neighborhoods to establish a presence so that we can grow.”
“To discount someone because they’re homeless, have an addiction, or have a mental illness is wrong; people have different talents, so let’s build upon those… One Step Away vendors are the strongest people I know- it takes a lot to put on a vest and deal with a public that may not always be nice or respectful.”
Is the ultimate goal is to have vendors move up and then out to their own careers: “It’s based on the vendor and their lives; for example vendor Jeff who is 65 has decided this is what he wants to do and with his skills he can grow within One Step Away; but some vendors we see are in their 20’s- there should be more for them; we want to meet vendors where they are… I think people need opportunities and if they aren’t presented with opportunities, things won’t change; they need advocates and that’s the biggest thing we provide”.
Vendor Jeff uses his leadership skills to train a group of vendors at the Arch Street United Methodist Church- home to One Step Away… He is also an accomplished photographer.
You’re so focused on the vendors and helping them advance in their lives, but what about you- what are your long term goals and is One Step Away part of that future: “I love the idea of social enterprises, businesses that generate revenue and help people at the same time; I would love to build One Step Away into having numerous social enterprises so that the newspaper is just one avenue.” Emily has considered the idea of coffee carts where vendors would sell coffee and the newspaper- this would build skills and entrepreneurship along with generating additional revenue for One Step Away… At this point in her life Emily sees a future building the grand vision of One Step Away.
What does One Step Away mean to you- personally; clearly with your skills you could find a higher paying job that doesn’t require the enormous effort and hours required to run One Step Away: “I’m from Philly- I want my community to be positive; I see the positive impact on the people’s lives touched by One Step Away… I don’t need anything more- I have a family, I went to college and got an education… It’s not about me, it’s about helping people have opportunities they never had before.” (The words of an amazing person.)
Emily laughed as she recalled her late night interactions with a vendor: “I get e-mails from vendor Charles at 10:00pm when I’m out somewhere, to tell me that he just finished his story for the upcoming issue and I’m sitting there giggling… If there were no One Step Away, where would Charles be- it’s pretty powerful!”
Vendor Charles: “I do a Q&A column in the paper- people put in questions and then I answer; my customers expect me to have something in the paper- if I miss an issue they will give me a look.”
With a show of emotion: “These vendors ARE people- they’re community members who just fell on hard times; it’s about helping people back on their feet and giving that stepping stone; they’re talented, smart, strong people with the will to persist and continue on- they just need to know someone cares!”… Emily has clearly defined what it means to be an amazing person who makes a difference.
The Financial Reality
In three years of working with One Step Away, I’ve seen the immense impact on vendors’ lives. And I’ve seen the unrelenting work that Emily takes on her shoulders to run One Step Away. Her task is even more daunting because there's more to the story of One Step Away- it relies completely on community support.
Jim Piasecki, Ph.D. (left, with his vendor partner Michael at the Big Sell Off) is the RHD Regional Director that oversees One Step Away. He spoke about Emily’s contributions to One Step Away and the enormous challenges she faces.
How does RHD view One Step Away: “What One Step Away is doing is incredible; we’re on the street every month with all these articles that address poverty, homelessness, inequality- that’s all about RHD’s larger mission; Emily is also working with vendors beyond the paper- she wants to help them get to a more stable life; One Step Away is a wonderful program and it’s amazing how Emily has sustained it.”
“One Step Away does not receive any government funding, making it atypical of most RHD programs or other homelessness providers. Most of those programs receive a set annual amount of government funding, but One Step Away relies entirely on donations and community support which tends to differ year to year. Each year, it’s Emily's responsibility to generate the revenue needed to support and sustain One Step Away and its expenses, including staff salaries.”... Emily often talks about having to control expenses: "We are constantly pricing out materials, and creatively repurposing items; you have to think about each dollar you spend- will I then be able to raise two dollars to replace it- I have to ask myself those questions frequently.”
Talk about Emily’s Leadership: “I would describe her as a multi-talented dynamo; her level of energy, capacity to learn, perseverance, and the ability to come up with ideas has really enriched One Step Away; she has embraced a dream that is so challenging but she is willing to do the work along with trying to keep the program viable- it’s a testament to her skills and perseverance.”
“As Emily has developed One Step Away, it’s become a social justice vehicle; and as I learned from the Big Sell Off, the vendors are a presence on the street- there are probably 10-20 people for each vendor who know them by name- it creates human connection.”
Vendors Jeff and Brian are perfect examples of how vendors connect with the public.
Vendor Jeff: “There is a side of One Step Away that people don’t see- it’s not the paper or the dollar, it’s relationships with people; even people with a job are lonely and often don’t have someone to say good morning to them and how are you today- we vendors acknowledge people… When people go to work and get the (bleep) kicked out of them, they come downstairs, get their Starbucks coffee and come talk to me- I can make their day a little bit better and that’s a good thing for me.”
Vendor Brian with a customer: “I expect to see my regular clients and they expect to see me; if they don’t look right I want to know why, and if I’m not showing my big smile, they want to know why; and if I take a day off: ‘Where were you?’… My clients support me throughout the month; but sometimes they’re a little short, so I give THEM some money; or sometimes when the new issue comes out and they haven't been paid yet, I just give them the paper and they always make it up to me- it’s like one hand washes the other.”
What would happen if Emily left One Step Away: Jim took a moment to react to this difficult thought: “We would like to sustain it but we would be severely challenged to figure out how to do that because it requires the leader having to bring in the vast majority of the revenue; we would really need three full time people to run it and that’s just not possible.”
Accolades for Emily
Several people were asked: “Emily’s leadership, passion and dedication have made One Step Away what it is today: What would you like to say to her?”
Kevin Roberts (from the original One Step Away team) addresses the crowd at Knock Out Homelessness with Emily at his side: “She knows how I feel about her- she’s amazing; I am in awe watching the work she does; it’s so rare and special to find someone who is that selfless for other people.”
Jim Piasecki (RHD Regional Director) at the Big Sell Off: “Emily, it’s because of you that One Step Away continues to exist; it’s because of you that One Step Away has built a vendor corps that is so dependent on One Step Away to help make it through life; Emily, it’s really close to unbelievable that not only have you been able to sustain the newspaper, but have developed it to the extent that you have and have done it with minimal assistance for these many years- I stand in awe of you!”
Bill Taylor (Emily’s Dad) with his daughter at Knock Out Homelessness: “Thank you Emily- God loves you for what you’re doing; it makes me teary eyed to think about how dedicated you are and the kind of difference you’re making in people’s lives.”
Vendor Joe: “Thank you so much Emily, not only for me but for all the other homeless people… Once you’re homeless, people get beat up and we never get back; if we didn’t have One Step Away to help, a lot of us would still be out there- and that’s the truth.
Vendor Jerry: “Thank you so much Emily for putting me on this train- I really needed it… Without you Emily there would have been no One Step Away and I wouldn’t have my apartment- I mean that from my heart.”
Vendor Kevin: “Emily you gave me a great opportunity and it basically saved my life- I’m very grateful.”
Vendor Jeff: “Emily you have been a friend, a sister, and someone I’m really proud of… I’ve watched you grow as I’ve grown; it’s your hard work and dedication- always wanting the paper to grow.”
Vendor William: “Emily I love you to death- you gave me the chance to sell the paper and I’m doing good.”
Vendor Lorenzo: “Thank you Emily for hearing us, giving us a chance to express ourselves, and allowing people to understand where homelessness comes from; you give us a voice to speak, as opposed to just being looked at as someone fallen by the wayside- it boosts my self esteem- it’s like a breath of fresh air.”
In every photo essay I look for three levels of the story:
- The Presenting Story: the obvious facts
- The Real Story: what’s actually going on
- The Story Within The Story: the treasure at the heart of the story
The Presenting Story of One Step Away is that it is a street newspaper which offers people who are down on their luck an opportunity to make some money and to educate the public at the same time. This is the story most people know about One Step Away.
The Real Story of One Step Away is that it is a program to enhance the quality of life (living conditions, life and work skills, self expression, upward mobility, self esteem) of people who have slipped through the cracks, and at the same time it connects and facilitates community interactions within Philadelphia. It’s also a program that, like its vendors, has very precarious financial resources. This is the story known only to people who get very close to the program.
The Story Within The Story of One Step Away is Emily Taylor whose leadership, passion and dedication have made One Step Away what it is today- a safe place for people to rebuild their lives. This is the story of an amazing person which, until now, has been largely unknown to the public.
One Step Away’s greatest benefit is that it very likely saves lives. On the first day of winter, Philadelphia holds the annual Homeless Memorial Day which remembers homeless people who were lost during the year. In 2015 there were 164 names; in 2016 there were 200 names; in 2017 there were 300 names- a very grim inflation rate. If One Step Away hadn’t existed for the past eight years, how many of the vendors would have remained homeless- how many might have died? There’s no way to know for sure. But we do know for sure is that One Step Away’s 60 vendors depend on this program.
Emily exemplifies an additional attribute of truly amazing people: she doesn’t realize that she’s amazing- but everyone else does.
To learn more, donate, or support One Step Away, please visit osaphilly.org... And if you're in the Philadelphia area, a great way to help would be to attend One Step Away's annual fundraiser, the Champions Celebration, held this year on May 10, 2018 at the Pyramid Club. It's a fun evening with a purpose: learning about the people who are working to end homelessness and supporting One Step Away- I'll be there to take your picture!
Addendum- The Vendors
It can seem so impersonal- we use words like: homeless, street people, panhandlers, addicts, but it’s about real people who experience so many life struggles: going without food, clothes, safe and secure housing, healthcare. One Step Away is a lifeline.
Skim through the following vendor images- each one is a human being who has been lifted up by One Step Away.
Vendor Slobodon and friend.
Vendors Jen and Skip, proud parents of Christian Michael.
Vendor Mack: They come in all shapes and sizes, colors, men and women, old and young- so many people in society are just One Step Away.
Published March 20, 2018