Homelessness is an invisible problem. For example, in December 2001, the UK Government announced that it had reduced street homelessness to a point where only 600 people were not sleeping in beds. While it is a laudable project to attempt to eradicate vagrancy, it ignores a larger problem: in that same month, government figures also showed that almost 78,000 households were living in temporary accommodation, such as Bed & Breakfasts. These households, while not physically on the streets, are still homeless, and in need of help.
Street papers such as the Big Issue, with their philosophy of 'a hand up, not a hand out', are invaluable in helping the homeless get out of the cycle of poverty. This is achieved by providing a way for vendors to support themselves. Bought by homeless - or 'vulnerably housed' - vendors from a distribution point, the papers are then sold at a profit on the street. Some of this money must be re-invested into buying more newspapers, while the rest is kept by the vendor. In this way, despite being socially excluded, the vendor has a regular 'wage', and is on their way off the streets.
Anatomy of a Street Paper
Street papers, such as the aforementioned Big Issue in the UK, Z Magazine in the Netherlands, and Streetwise in Chicago, offer more than a way to earn money. Worldwide, street papers have a readership of 24 million, and provide a voice to those who are often denied one – not only the homeless, but also the many other groups who find themselves disenfranchised, such as the drug dependent or mentally ill. They cover stories that the mainstream media barely touch upon, and have a larger circulation – and therefore a wider range of readers – than most other alternative media. For example, New Internationalist, which is a successful independent magazine, has a circulation of 48,000. The Big Issue in the UK sells over 271,000 copies each week, and claims to be read by over one million people.
In a world where multinational corporations control most mainstream media, and the power behind these corporations is becoming increasingly concentrated, it is heartening that a successful alternative is available. Being independent of corporate interests, they are free to criticise the private sector – not an easy option for many mainstream newspapers. Also, the non-profit status of these papers means that they are not beholden to shareholders or efficiency-maximising owners. This is not to say that the mass media is controlled absolutely through those that own it - but the idea of a 'fourth estate' in pursuit of truth and justice can only be undermined by the oligarchical ownership and control of the media.
Many of the organisations behind street papers are also involved in projects to help bridge the gaps between society and those excluded. These include practical measures, such as job clubs, advice centres and training courses. But there are also other projects which are less practical, yet just as useful, in helping re-integrate people back into society. Opportunities for homeless people to express themselves artistically, through initiatives such as SMart (which describes itself as 'The arts magazine from artists without homes') and 'The Art of the Escape', a collection of stories from the vendors of Megaphon1, provide an outlet for the frustration and anger that can build up from time spent on the streets. This in turn maximises the chances for successful re-integration into mainstream society – something which is just as important as providing a house.
When you buy a street paper, you do much more than contribute to the vendor's chances of escaping homelessness – you are also helping finance a support system for many more excluded people, something that giving spare change to a beggar simply does not do.
Street papers are a fairly recent phenomenon. The Big Issue started in London as a monthly publication in 1991, before going weekly in 1993, and extending to all parts of the UK. The Big Issue has helped set up similar ventures in mainland Europe, South Africa, and Australia. Similarly, the North American Street Newspaper Association, which now has over 30 members across the US and Canada, started in 1989 with only Street Sheet in San Francisco, and Street News in New York. Measuring the success of street papers by circulation alone gives an impressive picture, especially as the newspaper sector as a whole has remained fairly steady, in terms of circulation, since these papers were founded2.
But the success of these papers is far more impressive when their social impact is taken into consideration. In the UK during 1999, among other achievements, The Big Issue helped rehouse over a hundred people, and helped over seven times that amount avoid dire financial crisis. With these achievements spreading across the globe, it's hard not to agree with Kato, an Argentinian vendor when he says that 'selling the magazine gives me more than just food and that is important'.International Network of Street PapersNewspaper Circulation 1960 to Present