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Central and East Europe: Magazine Vending Gives Homeless Chance To Make A Living

  • Stuart Parrott

London, 5 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The Central and East European countries are studying a novel British approach to the problem of homelessness, particularly of unemployed young men sleeping rough in the streets of London and other big cities.

In recent years, an independent British publishing firm has put thousands of homeless people back into work by supplying them with copies of a weekly magazine, The Big Issue, and licensing them to sell it on street corners and railway stations for a modest profit.

In effect, the scheme enables the homeless to earn an income through self-help, allows them to rent somewhere to live, and gives them a chance of competing again on the regular job market.

The scheme has prompted appeals for help from homeless groups in several Central and East European countries. Two street newspapers modeled on The Big Issue are already being published in Russia and Hungary, while British officials are considering an appeal to part-fund similar newspapers in the rest of Central Europe.

The inspiration for The Big Issue originally came from Street News, a newspaper sold by homeless people in New York, and spotted by a British businessman, Gordon Roddick, co-founder of the international Body Shop chain of cosmetics stores.

The Big Issue, modeled on the New York newspaper, was launched in 1991 with a monthly circulation of 30,000. Written by professional journalists, it soon established a reputation for 'cutting edge' news items and hard-hitting exposes, combined with cultural features, and a column expressing the view of the homeless.

The most novel aspect of The Big Issue is its distribution method -- which relies on homeless people across the country.

When a prospective vendor visits The Big Issue offices, he or she is asked to provide proof that they homeless. They are given a training session which explains the aims of the magazine. (These include the investment of profits to benefit homeless people.)

In London, after being given identification badges, they receive 10 free copies of the Big Issue. Thereafter, they buy copies for 60 (US) cents each, and sell them on the streets to the public for $1.30, keeping the 70 cents profit. Once the apprenticeship period is over, they are given a permanent "pitch" within cities and towns.

The Big Issue now sells about 280,000 copies a year and has launched editions in South Africa and Australia. It was also the inspiration for a Russian street magazine, The Depths -- named after the Gorky play -- published in St Petersburg.

Last week, on an official visit to Budapest, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, made a point of buying a copy of a Hungarian street newspaper, also modeled on The Big Issue.

The newspaper, Flaszter (Hungarian for pavement) so far has 40 vendors and is producing 20,000 issues monthly. The British Foreign Office, which has given 10,000 dollars to fund cooperation between Flaszter and The Big Issue, said: "Ultimately Flaszter could be a pilot for similar projects in other Central European countries."

At present, Britain is considering a proposal to fund a resource center for street newspapers in Eastern/Central Europe, but a spokesman said that no decision has been taken yet,

In the interim, The Big Issue, and its sister street newspapers in 16 European cities, will continue to raise money for, and articulate the views of, those unfortunate enough to be without a home.