Tell me: Do You Want to Hold Me?

Buy a street paper, help end homelessness

By Gregory Flannery

Frank Dries holds bags that say, "Do you want to hold me?" Photo by INSP.

Melbourne, Australia – Clarity arrived on the final day of the 15th annual conference of the International Network of Street Papers (INSP).

“We could very well be the largest social enterprise in the world,” said Lisa MacLean, executive director of INSP.

Street papers around the world employ an estimated 50,000 homeless and formerly homeless people as vendors, according to MacLean.

Social enterprise is the use of economic activity for social good. Selling street papers is a form of self-employment for poor people.

“Selling street papers is an instant shift from unemployment to employment,” said Steven Persson, CEO of Big Issue Australia, host of the INSP conference. “You can start a business for $1.”

Streetvibes and many U.S. street newspapers sell for $1 but street papers in Europe and Australia tend to be glossy magazines, selling for up to $5. The price range and print quality are among the many variations in street papers around the world.

The INSP conference included 70 delegates from 42 street papers in 27 countries. Some of the papers are huge. Erlik Oslo, in Norway, for example, sells 24,000 copies a month. The population of metropolitan Oslo is about 1.3 million. In Cincinnati, whose metro area has nearly twice as many people, Streetvibes sells about one-third that amount – 8,000 copies a month.

Some street papers have paid staff. Many do not. (Streetvibes has one.) Some European street papers receive government subsidies. Many street papers do not. (Streetvibes is published by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, which refuses all government funding.)

INSP members shared sales strategies, discussed local impediments – it is illegal to sell on the streets in the Philippines, for example – and pondered new riddles: When Big Issue Korea launches in Seoul this summer, how many copies would be right for a city of 10 million people?

The one common element among street papers is their purpose: to fight poverty by giving homeless people jobs.

‘Other choices’

The final day of the INSP conference featured a presentation by the Global Poverty Project, whose Australian general manager, Richard Fleming, provided inspiration for the struggle. He described his work at a school in a village in Bangladesh, where he met a girl living in a brothel with her mother and sister.

“She told us the only reason she worked in prostitution was there was nothing else she could do,” Fleming said. “She had no skills. She couldn’t read or write. … She doesn’t want to do it but it’s the only economic power she had. That’s why street papers exist – to give people economic opportunity to change the way they live, so they can go off and have other choices in their life.”

The theme of the INSP conference was, “Global Collaboration: Real Solutions.” Fleming’s presentation was the opening salvo in planning for the Global Speak Out, INSP’s initiative for addressing poverty in the year ahead.

Inspiration isn’t enough in itself, of course. Facts matter. This was, after all, a conference of journalists. When Fleming closed with a bit of rhetoric – saying “extreme poverty” can be ended in this generation, even as Nelson Mandela succeeded in ending apartheid in South Africa and Great Britain succeeded in ending the slave trade in the 19th century – it did not go unremarked that the latter assertion was a stretch. Great Britain banned slave trading in the early 19th century, but hardly eliminated it. In fact, some 26 million people across the world are victims of human trafficking today, according to organizations working to end slavery.

Fleming’s call to join the struggle to eliminate extreme poverty led to practical thinking by delegates. In a workshop following his presentation, INSP members came to the conclusion that, rather than start a new campaign to end poverty, they will do best to concentrate on the work they already do.

The general membership embraced the notion: Street papers are a tangible solution for individuals. Given the size of the street-paper movement, street papers are already one of the largest social enterprises in the world. Trudy Vlok, general manager of Big Issue South Africa, summarized INSP’s newfound self-appreciation.

“We are rock stars,” she said.

Vlok’s paper plans to publish a special edition for June, when the World Cup is played in South Africa.

“They’re going to have this huge event,” she said. “We want to make sure poor people get something out of it.”

That special edition will not be about the woes of poverty, but rather a guide for visitors in town to enjoy the soccer championship.

Not doing favors

Therein lies the existential tension of the street-paper movement – trying to build newspaper sales in order to benefit vendors while giving readers substantial content. Street papers have to be about more than homelessness, or they won’t sell. No one, after all, wants to be scolded by a constant refrain about the woes of being poor.

“I think most street papers realize they don’t want to be called a ‘homeless paper’ anymore,” said Joanne Zuhl, managing editor of Street Roots in Portland, Ore. “If vendors can’t sell the paper, we’re not doing them any favors.”

Enlov P. Mathiesen, editor of Erlik Oslo, agreed.

“I think homelessness bores people,” he said. “If it’s about homelessness every issue, they’re not going to read it.”

To that end, delegates at the conference discussed ways to improve editorial content in order to build sales and thereby benefit vendors.

Some street papers don’t limit themselves to journalism. Some are affiliated with larger social enterprises. For example, Der Jerusalemmer, in Germany, operates a café that employs and serves homeless people. Big Issue Australia sponsors a touring street-soccer team. Frank Dries, editor of Straatnieuws in the Netherlands, described a project through which vendors offered for sale not only copies of the magazine but also recyclable shopping bags. A competition among local artists led to the final design, with the shopping bags emblazoned with the message, “Do you want to hold me?”

Straatnieuws vendors sold about 2,000 shopping bags, and local media coverage helped promote the street paper as an employment opportunity for homeless people. The slogan on the bags also points to another purpose for social enterprises such as Streetvibes – wearing down the social barriers that isolate homeless people. Thus our question for readers: “Do you want to hold me?”