New Internationalist Issue 276
The material that follows has been provided by New Internationalist
Homeless people are making their presence felt on city streets
in a new and challenging way. Tessa Swithinbank
tells the unique success story of The Big Issue in
Britain and of 'street papers' around the world.
Pat is adamant. 'If it hadn't been for The Big Issue my only other choice when I first became homeless would have been to beg or become a prostitute. It has changed my life radically,' she adds, 'given me back my confidence'.
Outside shops, theatres, cinemas and malls, in hundreds of towns and cities throughout Europe and North America, and in South Africa, marginalized people are selling street papers. They are earning a living without having to beg.
Pat, aged 40, sells the weekly Big Issue in a craft market in Merton, a suburb of London. Her story is typical of many who become homeless in the First World. The causes are myriad: losing your job; losing your home through not being able to pay rent or the mortgage; divorce, with one partner not being able to afford alternative accommodation; abuse at home.
Pat's two teenage daughters and son were sexually and physically abused by her partner. One day she decided to leave home and, with only a carrier bag in her hand, told him she was going out shopping. She ended up living on the streets and in 'bed-and-breakfasts' with her children.
Determined to move off the streets, Pat sold The Big Issue for 12 hours a day and earned enough money to buy food and clothes, even saving a little. 'I met my present partner through The Big Issue,' she says. 'He was a vendor on the Strand. We met at The Big Issue office and have now built our home together.'
So how does the paper work? The principle is simple. A person is allocated a selling pitch and given a badge. Then they buy copies of the paper for 30p (50 cents) - getting the first ten copies on credit if necessary - and sell each one to the public for 70p, keeping 40p for themselves.
Profits from the business go to its social-support system for people who have often been excluded from society for many years. Drug and alcohol counselling is available, while staff in the housing unit obtain either short-term or long-term accommodation for homeless people, most of whom are single men in their 20s and 30s. 'Micro-enterprises', such as candle-making and a unit training people in desk-top publishing and computer skills, put them in a better position to get back into the job market.
The training and support are absolutely crucial, believes Pat. 'A roof over your head is not enough. Homelessness is not just a situation, it is a state of mind. To rejoin society a homeless person needs help.'
Nobody likes to see people wrapped in blankets and huddling in doorways. But there is a general feeling of powerlessness. What The Big Issue has done since its launch in September 1991 challenges society's perception of homelessness. A quarter of a million people talk to the vendors every week about why they are on the streets. 'I always buy my Big Issue from Andy outside Waterloo Station,' says one commuter who travels to London from Surrey every day. 'Now I know more about his life I don't feel so critical. I really admire his determination to get back on his feet.'
Why does the paper have so much public support? Well, it's a good read. 'Exclusives' with celebrities, musicians and artists combine with news and features on issues not tackled elsewhere. The 'Street Lights' section is for homeless people and their writing - the paper also campaigns for their rights. It's a way, too, for individuals to feel they are making a difference - the public responds well to a positive example. Together with its sister papers in Scotland and Ireland, it now has combined sales of nearly one million a month. Its high profile means that it is talked about on the radio, on television, in the papers and even scripted into soap operas.
The street-paper phenomenon has mushroomed worldwide. You can now buy almost 60 different titles in 12 European countries. Travelling around Germany, for example, you will find at least 25 street papers with such colourful names as Hinz & Kunzt (Hamburg), Asphalt (Hannover), Bodo (Dortmund), Motz & Co (Berlin), Biss (Munich) and Kippe (Leipzig).
The papers work with a variety of marginalized groups - unemployed, drug addicts or refugees, as well as homeless people. They sell anywhere between 3,000 and 120,000 copies a month. There is a wide diversity of approach to both editorial content and the support of vendors. Some papers only provide an income, but the majority make a much broader response to the needs of their vendors.
In Eastern Europe homelessness has increased steadily since the demise of communism, with higher rents, property scams and unemployment. Welfare systems and safety nets have disappeared. In St Petersburg, Russia, the problem is at its most acute. Over 50,000 bomzhi (people with no fixed address), including thousands of children, are sleeping under bridges, in stairwells and on the streets.
At the Nochlyezhka project 24 dedicated staff work with 13,000 homeless people every year who come through the doors needing food and medical care. Director Valeriy Sokolov was inspired by a copy of The Big Issue brought to the shelter in 1992 and raised money to launch Eastern Europe's first street paper in September 1994. Aptly named The Depths after Maxim Gorky's low-life novel, the paper is the only way that homeless people can earn a legal wage. Without a resident's stamp, which gives every Russian citizen's official address, they have no civil rights or access to health and education, leaving them totally outside the system.
The Depths covers issues from human-rights abuse to off-beat culture. Increasingly popular, the monthly print-run of 12,000 is often sold out within days of publication. Sokolov believes the paper is changing society's attitude to homeless people in a country where, under communism, it was a criminal offence to be homeless. 'The state must see a ragged, flea-ridden, foul-smelling person not as an anti-social element but as its own citizen, whose rights and liberty are incontrovertible,' he says.
New York is the home of the world's first street paper, Street News, which was the inspiration for The Big Issue. Street papers are now sold in North American cities from coast to coast. Paul Cohen is editor of Street Scene in Los Angeles, the only street paper for youth in the US. 'We work with runaway youth who are still coming to Los Angeles searching for the Hollywood Dream,' he explains. He knows their lives can easily become sordid and difficult. Involving them in writing Street Scene is good both for them and for the readers. 'The paper allows them the opportunity to be creative,' says Cohen; most American and Canadian papers focus heavily on the involvement of homeless writers.
The first street paper in the South has been launched in South Africa. Homeless Talk started two years ago as an initiative of the Central Johannesburg Partnership and other church groups. Each edition is compiled by a weekly writing group attended by about 30 homeless people. Vendors buy the paper for 20 cents and sell it for one rand.
The Big Issue's Maria Clancy visited Homeless Talk last year to share ideas and experiences with the staff and vendors. In a country where housing is high on the political agenda she believes Homeless Talk is a dynamic and creative force: 'One female vendor told me: "My shack was washed away in the recent rains. My three children and I now live with our neighbours." Homeless Talk has been her lifeline. "The paper has given me the means to buy what I need to rebuild my life," she told me.'
Many of the vendors are drawn from the hundreds of homeless residents of the Park bus and rail station in Johannesburg. 'I was talking to Michael, who used to live in Park Station,' says Maria. 'He was elated because he is now able to rent a flat through his earnings from Homeless Talk. He was very positive about his future.' Plans are now underway for street papers to be set up in Durban and Cape Town.
This month Australia's first paper hits the streets of Melbourne. In Eastern Europe more will follow, notably in Budapest and Warsaw. There are sure to be further launches elsewhere.
Street papers won't solve the problem of homelessness on their own. Getting homeless people out of the street, and getting the street out of homeless people, needs an alliance of homeless people with the public, government and the voluntary sector.
But street papers are giving marginalized people the chance to bring about change through their own action. Pat is in no doubt about what The Big Issue has done for her: 'You are not a prisoner of the system any more, not caught in the poverty trap. You can hold your head high and know that you are doing it yourself.'
Tessa Swithinbank works on international coverage for The Big Issue, London.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996