By Kayte Spillman
While Ranya Forgotson was still in college, she dared to believe that starting traditional businesses employing and empowering homeless people could not only work but also be transformative to Oklahoma City.
Eight years and soon-to-be four businesses later, she was right.
First came The Curbside Chronicle, a monthly magazine similar to street papers found across the country all with the same theme of providing dignified employment for people transitioning out of homelessness, which was made possible with support and funding from the Homeless Alliance.
The first issue hit in 2013, and she and co-founder Whitley O’Conner worked for the next two years to secure additional funding, run a publication and support employees aiming to become stable as people began responding to both their product and their mission.
“Street papers are this beautiful blend of journalism with advocacy and a voice,” she said. “It is a business that allows people to be part of the
solution, and it is advocacy that allows services to be included for those that need them. It’s been an eight-year journey to see all that potential grow.”
And grow it has: She said The Curbside Chronicle currently sells 12,000 magazines a month, with contributions of as little as $2 a month. In total, the organization now employs more than 200 people who are experiencing or transitioning out of homelessness.
“I like to view that as 12,000 interactions where someone shares a word or can connect to one of our employees,” she said. “Our street sales allow people to rethink negative stereotypes. Typically, once people find out what we are doing, they want to be a part of it. What we do is not possible without that collective power.”
The organization also now employs housing case managers and employment specialists, and it provides other wrap-around services to help employees.
“We are very low barrier,” she said. “We accept people as they are. Just come as you are, and we’ll figure it out. I’ve seen hundreds of people reconnect with family, reconnect with friends and their community. I’ve seen so many get sober, get mental health, regain their confidence that they can work and take care of themselves.”
Then in 2016, Forgotson said she thought selling flowers on the street for Valentine’s Day would be a way to increase both revenue and employment opportunities, based on successful wrapping paper street sales from the previous year. She said she underestimated the success: They sold 100 bundles in less than one day.
“We had no idea what a big deal we had stumbled into,” she said. “It grew to where we were selling 1,000 bundles, and we sold 2,000 this past year.”
So, with some funding from the Oklahoma City Community Foundation Great Idea Challenge, Curbside Flowers opened a brick-and-mortar location just about a year ago, Dec. 15, 2020.
The youth program, Sasquatch Shaved Ice, came next, which helps young adults aged 16-24 learn job skills, financial education and college and career readiness training. With the street paper, the flower shop and the shaved ice business that now has three locations–one in the Plaza District, one in Bricktown and a mobile unit available for booking–generating revenue now comes from multiple fronts.
“We must generate revenue to support us,” she said. “We have a lot of social services that other typical businesses do not have.”
And they aren’t done. In 2022, look for Curbside Apparel, a screen-printing business, to launch as well. “We want to change the narrative of homelessness and broaden the empathy around it,” she said. “If people understand homelessness and the root causes of homelessness, that will change the way
we approach the problem.”
And thus, the more businesses she can spin off,
the farther her cause can spread.
“The more we can seep into everyone’s lives, the
more social problems and solutions can be a part of the everyday,” she said. “And we’ll normalize solutions to these problems and increase the impact we can have. I’m so grateful that Oklahoma City has embraced it because it’s incredible.”