If you were at your most desperate, down and out with literally nothing to offer but tears, Delphia Simmons’ smile is probably what you’d want to see. A friendly face framed by her mahogany brown Afro, Simmons is the well-contained mix of kindness and determination -- a necessary blend of attributes for the important work she does.
Simmons is the founder of Thrive Detroit
, a social venture offering vulnerably-housed citizens opportunities to launch micro-entrepreneurial projects. Through her experience as a program coordinator for the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS)
, Simmons observed that while there were programs for housing, there was a void in addressing the immediate financial needs of the homeless. Her solution: self-employment and independence.
Thus, Thrive Detroit was born to offer a necessary stopgap that begins to unstitch the oppressive straightjacket of homelessness. Thrive Detroit’s first project is a monthly street newspaper, modeled on papers in other cities, with a mission to empower individuals struggling with extreme poverty.
How does it work? Newspapers are sold to individual vendors, who in turn sell to the general public at a 75 percent profit. At a low cost of $0.25 per issue, Thrive Detroit offers a business opportunity with a very low barrier to entry. It also helps vendors participate in the community on a new level, moving toward self-sufficiency and success.
The paper offers local content, covers issues of social justice and poverty, and seeks to be a voice for vendors and the un-housed. That said, Simmons doesn’t want it to be "a newspaper just about homelessness." Her vision is to have readers who want to read the monthly issues, and vendors who are proud to sell them. Staffed by volunteers, some of whom have experienced housing vulnerability themselves, the paper aims to address these topics without being overhanded.
This is not Simmons first foray into social innovation -- she has made a career of making a difference. While working full-time and parenting three children, she successfully launched and sold a math and reading tutoring center she operated with her sister. Later, with a friend, she helped start The Edwards Foundation to set up feeding programs in Namibia, where they served 300 kids a day in the rural town of Katutura. She has also taught first grade.
Today, Simmons plays many roles in her company, juggling publishing, editing, writing and sales duties, even as she holds down her full-time job at C.O.T.S overseeing their $6 million Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program. In June 2011, when Detroit was announced as the first "Kiva City
," Simmons was selected as one of the inaugural recipients of their microloan program. Now, Simmons serves as Co-Chair of the local board.
But she’s not done yet. This year, Simmons is expanding Thrive Detroit’s scope to offer additional creative business opportunities that require little startup capital and low technical barriers. The newest initiative will train and equip people with windshield repair kits, which, like the newspapers, they can use to generate income.
For Simmons, the face of homelessness is atypical -- everyone from the undereducated to professionals with Ph.Ds. Instead of replicating stereotypical approaches, Simmons is recasting the conversation through deliberate and creative action to empower Detroit’s most vulnerable citizens. And she’s doing it with a smile.
"This profile is from the Urban Innovation Exchange, a new online community to inform and engage Detroit's growing social innovation movement. For more profiles of local innovators, visit UIXDetroit.com and follow us on Facebook and Twitter."
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