Homelessness: Street Fight (5/98)

Street newspapers across the US are buzzing about the implications of an emerging battle between two rival papers. It’s a David and Goliath fight, raising important question about how best to help the homeless. Playing the role of David is Making Change, a new addition to the street paper movement, written and sold by homeless people in Santa Monica, Los Angeles. With the tiniest of operating budgets, it’s struggling to keep afloat in a world where the marketplace makes the going tough for small business ventures.

Upon the publication of its second edition, The Big Issue — a successful London entertainment magazine sold by homeless people — made public its plans for a Los Angeles version. That decision has sparked heated debate in the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA).

Big Issue’s move into Los Angeles is considered hostile by the smaller paper, edited by Jennafer Waggoner, a 28-year-old former homeless woman who jump-started a failing paper into Making Change out of the cab of her pickup truck/home. She began after attending a NASNA conference, sponsored by two national homeless groups in Seattle last September.

The Big Issue sent a representative to observe that conference, saying at the time that it had no plans for the US. Previous attempts had failed in major cities like New York and San Francisco, which already had street papers. According to the charter of the International Network of Street Newspapers, no INSP member will enter the selling territory of another street paper. The Big Issue is an INSP member.

After its announcement, Internet debate and conference calls centered on the ethics of The Big Issue’s plan, and whether L.A. is a big enough market for two street papers. "The Big Issue is planning on McDonaldizing the street paper market by offering their paper in every city," Waggoner charges. The two papers are currently negotiating, although INSP and The Big Issue are silent about the charter rule.

The larger issue is the corporatization of homeless services. Homelessness is hitting society at all levels. Poverty is no longer limited by race or ethnicity. Combining environmental, social, business, political, and health issues, it has become a nagging question for all levels of government and society at large.

Waggoner feels that homeless services shouldn’t just treat people like clients, but incorporate them as policy makers and planners of relief efforts. "If it is about product, anyone could have homeless people out selling things like toothpaste or laundry detergent," she says, "It’s about having a voice." Making Change is concerned that a large new competitor in the L.A. market could drown whatever chances it may have to empower the homeless through its efforts.

The Big Issue, on the other hand, feels that its mainstream approach offers a product that is profitable for a homeless person to sell, providing a source of income that’s a socially acceptable alternative to begging. The paper donates its profits to a foundation that provides social services for its vendors. Of the 550,000 homeless in London, Big Issue serves approximately 7000, and distributes about 300,000 magazines a week.

For many in this grassroots media movement, street papers represent a challenge to large social service agencies, which have mastered the art of corporate begging while squelching smaller grassroots initiatives through the grant game. In contrast, street papers generate income largely outside charity circles, combining freedom of speech and entrepreneurship to generate some immediate cash for those in a crisis. In cities across the US, where municipal governments have enacted laws that target homeless people, it will be interesting to see what, if any, impact The Big Issue has on attitudes toward homelessness. "Everyone keeps asking me why our paper isn’t reaching the same goals as The Big Issue," says Waggoner. "It comes down to two things: we are really young and we have no money. If we were left in a pristine environment, we may have been able to produce what The Big Issue provides for its customers and vendors. Now we have to do more with what we have."

She argues that addressing homelessness shouldn’t be about competition, but rather working together. "We in NASNA were hoping that there could be a street paper in every city by the year 2000. Some of us were hoping that homeless people would be enabled to do it, not to have it done for us, like what always happens." While she admits that The Big Issue can provide an income, she argues that her paper offers both that and a voice. "Who is to say which is better? Sales or social justice? If they have come here to help the homeless, I just hope we don’t lose the voice of the homeless."

Material for this article was provided by Making Changes.

For information, contact:

Jennafer Waggoner
POB 3622
Santa Monica, CA 90408
(310) 289-7446.

John Bird, Executive Director of The Big Issue can be reached at (310) 587-1537.
Information about street papers is available from Tim Harris, Chair of NASNA, (206) 441-3247; Robert Norse of NASNA’s Commercialization Sub Committee, (408) 423-4833.