Bring on Britain's Street Paper

by Brian Davis

Commentary Supporting Big Issue

     What is the big deal with the Big Issue? While there are currently 40 homeless street newspapers in North America, the street newspaper industry has exploded in Europe with approximately 90 papers from Scotland to St. Petersburg, Russia. There is a newspaper sold by homeless people with its main office in London England called The Big Issue. It has a couple of pages reserved for homeless issues, but features many entertainment and current event type stories. It is a smaller Life magazine with some progressive thought thrown in sold by homeless people. It is slick with splashy headlines and a solid base of advertising. (The Grapevine in Cleveland assists the vendors to make $.85 to $.80 profit on each paper.)

     The Big Issue allows the vendors to make 40 pence. They buy the paper for 40 pence and sell it for 80 pence. They sell a ton of papers each week. This is a big business. The Big Issue supports a foundation in which they support other social service organizations. The paper is not an organizing paper, but a solid job for homeless people. The paper has a wide audience, and is pretty easy to sell.

     The Big Issue has expanded to Edinburgh, South Africa, Australia, and many cities throughout the mother country. They now have decided to come to the Los Angeles market with its over 8.5 million possible customers and is burgeoning homeless population. The one problem is that there is a new, small street paper based out of Santa Monica that publishes every other month that may be hurt by the Big Issue. Santa Monica is just outside of L.A.

     This has caused quite a stir in the street newspaper movement. In 1997, the North American Street Newspaper Association was born (see Issue 23). The group has taken on this issue as a primary focus over the last two month. I say, "Forget it and move on." There are far bigger problems to tackle then attempting to control other media outlets. If this was actually a grassroots Street newspaper that focused on local issues about poverty then there might be a case for some action. But not in a huge city like Los Angeles and not with a paper that has very few stories about homelessness.

I think that it can only help the street newspaper movement. I say come to Cleveland. We would love to have England’s Big Issue. Both of our papers would improve. The Big Issue would have to cover local stories if they wanted to compete with our paper, and we would be forced to improve the look of our paper to compete with the Big Issue. There are enough homeless people to support both papers in Cleveland, and there are enough to support 6 to 8 papers in Los Angeles.

     I feel as though if there were more businesses that attempted to hire homeless people the world would be a better place. Make no mistake, the Big Issue is a business venture first with a twist of social concern to add a little flavor. Those people who want to trudge through a bunch of advertisements to read about the night Diana died or the Resurrection of Sid Vicious’ musical career will pick up the Big Issue. Those who want to read the words of homeless people and find out about what is going on in the homeless community but don’t mind the somewhat archaic layout style will buy the papers that are like the Grapevine. Those who just want to provide some direct assistance to the homeless and very low income will buy both papers.

     I have a sneaking suspicion that this frenzy that has arisen because of the Big Issue has a lot to do with a back-handed way to thrust a litmus test on the North American street newspapers by the most progressive elements of our movement. In many progressive movements there are those who want their comrades in arms to be "pure."

     They want to wake up in the morning after the battle is won with those who have stayed true to their convictions and have taken the moral high ground. In the homeless organizing movement, the extreme progressive element wants only those people who live, breath and eat poverty. They want the white-male dominated, corporate, morally bankrupt system to fall. They isolate themselves from those people and organizations that "sleep with the enemy." Organizations that survive by using corporate dollars or are organized like the big bad multinational corporations with a white male at the head look too much like the perceived enemy.

     The problem with all this is that there are not enough of those organizations of such high character in existence. They isolate themselves to the point that there are only a select few that can pass the purity test. Those select few that can pass the test are so battle worn from fighting for every single cause with a folk song attached to it that the movement peters out and dies. The reason that the multinationals are kicking our asses is that they have one single thing in which they rally around—money. Everything revolves around money. If an organization wants to be a part of the club, all they have to agree to is that profit is the reason for existence. From selling medicine to prison oversight to art to ice cream, all of the corporations have profit in common.

     A writer in the Nation noted recently that the system of keeping the progressive movement weak could not have been designed by conservatives to work better than it does. There are thousands of organizations that fight for women’s rights, trees, homeless people, children, and animals, and never do they meet at a common table. If progressives are ever going to succeed they have to come together and stop putting up barriers to forming alliances. We have to figure out what we have in common and send that ship into battle. [A side note: The true progressives hate when organizations use war metaphors. It is violent, cold, and demonstrates a clear lack of understanding and ill will toward the women of the movement or something like that].

     I say bring on the British. They are not competition for most North American papers. They are competition to the so-called "alternative media." Our grandfathers in the progressive movement fought against the monopolies of Morgan and Rockefeller, and today we are fighting to corner the market on employing homeless people. We have room for all who are fighting for human rights—no matter how that manifests itself.

From Global Homeless Network.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published 1998 Issue 25