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Following a Paper Trail Out of Homelessness

Kanya D'Almeida

NEW YORK, Oct 14 2010 (IPS) - While questions of funding and accountability shadow the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), some actors have taken matters into their own hands. On Wednesday, the Glasgow-based International Network for Street Papers (INSP) announced that it has helped 200,000 people to get off the streets and onto a path of opportunity.

Vendor Andrew sells The Big Issue Australia on the streets of Melbourne. Credit: Courtesy of INSP

Vendor Andrew sells The Big Issue Australia on the streets of Melbourne. Credit: Courtesy of INSP

Dedicated to combating homelessness through the sale of newspapers, INSP describes itself as a “global engine for [finding] local poverty solutions across the globe” by harnessing the employment potential of street paper movements to their cause.

Born in London in 1994, INSP has grown from an intimate gathering of editors and social workers representing 16 newspapers to a huge umbrella organisation encompassing hundreds of street papers.

To mark the U.N. Day for the Eradication of Poverty on Oct. 17, INSP reported that 114 street papers and magazines worldwide have enabled hundreds of thousands of homeless people to improve their lives.

According to Lisa Maclean, executive director of INSP, “street papers have been such a vital route to a more positive existence for so many and we will continue to build on this progress.”

Every day, hundreds of street papers attempt to battle homelessness by raising awareness of poverty, inequality and social justice in cities across the world. The bulk of these papers are bought at cost by destitute, homeless or other marginalised vendors and sold for their cover price, allowing the sellers to pocket a small profit off every sale.

These papers, which include such titles as, ‘Homeless Talk’ in Johannesburg, ‘WSPAK’ in Warsaw and ‘The Way Home’ in Odessa, run the gamut from North America to East Asia. INSP unites these publications, consolidating top street paper journalism through its independent news agency, the Street News Service (SNS).

“Our main objective is to hear the voices from the ground,” SNS Editor Danielle Batist told IPS. “These are street-voice stories, if you will.”

Batist stressed the importance of digging up the stories that get bulldozed by the mainstream, and exposing front- line realities about the world. In July 2010, over a dozen street papers in the U.S. combined their strength to report on the wave of hate crimes against homeless people in the United States – a topic overlooked by most mainstream media in the country.

During the 2010 FIFA world cup, stadium floodlights did not reach the dark corners where South Africa’s marginalised people continued to huddle; but the street papers shed light on prostitution that flourished during the games, and on the abject poverty that remained untouched by the opulence of the proceedings.

SNS is supported by a number of global partners including Inter Press Service (IPS), Reuters and the Scottish-based Herald and Times Group, all of whom allow their content to be reproduced free of charge on SNS’s multi-lingual interactive website.

“This is about people using journalism to help themselves and thus help the world,” said David Schlesinger, editor-in- chief of Reuters and honourary president of INSP. “I urge you to go to [SNS] to find out what’s really happening in the world.”

“Inter Press Service is about communication for development, and we think INSP is an ideal partner for that,” said Peter Dhondt, coordinator of IPS in Brussels, explaining why IPS decided to take this step with the Glasgow-based organisation.

Susan Alexander of IPS added that, “Street newspapers contribute directly to poverty alleviation and IPS is proud to contribute stories in different languages to their street news service. It’s great to see IPS stories picked up by street papers on every continent.”

“Through successful joint fundraising we have been able to expand the partnership to create a special series on the Millennium Development Goals and to finance more translations,” she added. “In Africa, IPS has been involved in training teams working to start up new street newspapers in Burundi and South Africa.”

INSP does not believe in charity or hand-outs. Rather, they subscribe to the philosophy of hard work and entrepreneurship.

“The idea of the [street] papers is that a vendor shouldn’t be a vendor for life,” Batist told IPS. “They should get a ‘hand-up’ and build a better life. The ethos of the papers is the same.”

INSP street papers display a steadfast commitment to these principles – in addition to providing housing assistance, sales training and drug and alcohol rehabilitation therapy, vendors are also offered writing and literacy workshops. Often street papers publish vendors’ art and poetry, a big step towards boosting the morale of people who have shouldered the brunt of gross social inequity, some for nearly a lifetime.

However, like all emerging organisations, INSP still has its work cut out for it. Inadequate funding continues to be the biggest hurdle. Although a number of street papers exist throughout Africa, Europe and the Americas, the South Asian subcontinent remains badly underrepresented.

“There is still a lot to be done,” Batist admitted to IPS. “If we had the funding we would love to launch more, obviously.”

The street papers also face some government obstacles, particularly with regards to content. Commenting on her time working with a street paper in Namibia, Batist cited homelessness, public health, HIV prevention and safe sex awareness as hot street paper topics that are taboo in the mainstream, government- run media.

Regardless of these barriers, INSP is surging forward. Today, their landmark success has given social justice advocates a reason to celebrate.

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