The editor of Hinz&Kunzt has been lauded by local government for her tireless commitment to helping homeless and socially vulnerable people in Hamburg.
Birgit Mueller was given the Federal Cross of Merit [Bundesverdienstkreuz] on 25 January, in a ceremony at Hamburg’s City Hall.
The Federal Cross of Merit is one of the highest honours bestowed in Germany. The city’s Social Minister Melanie Leonhard said it reflected Mueller’s achievements during her 23-year career at Hinz&Kunzt.
But the humble editor insisted that the award belonged to the whole Hinz&Kunzt team. In a break from tradition, she asked for a second ceremony to take place at the street paper’s offices, so all vendors and staff could join in the celebrations.
Mueller spoke to INSP about receiving the award and the highs and lows of her life in street papers.
Congratulations on the award Birgit! How did you feel when you found out?
When I heard I was surprised and a bit embarrassed because it’s one of the highest honours of the German Republic but I think it’s not for me personally, it’s for my team and our vendors. When I think about it like that, I’m happy because it’s a very big honour for Hinz&Kunzt. I’m very glad for this because the last few years have been very hard.
You also made sure Hinz&Kunzt vendors could help you celebrate…
Yes we changed the tradition and managed to have the vendors there too. That was very unusual. Normally this award is given out at City Hall but we didn’t want that because I could only bring 15 guests and I wanted my whole team to attend. And naturally I wanted the vendors to come. So the Social Minister said she would come to us. First we went to City Hall, then she came to our office and made a speech. This was really important for me, my team and all our vendors.
The award recognises the incredible work Hinz&Kunzt has done in the past. Has it also made you think about the future?
You know, after all the celebrations we sat down as a team and decided we need to think bigger. We are fighting too much for things that are too small. We need to think about our strategy and come to another method so that it’s clear we want to do more for the homeless. It’s not just enough to fight to keep a homeless shelter open during the day. That is thinking too small. We want to have apartments and good accommodation for homeless people. I personally had a very bad moment last year when we fought for a very ugly area where people lived – there are no toilets, it is horrible. We fought for them so they could stay there. If you think about that, it’s absurd.
You’ve been involved with Hinz&Kunzt for 23 years. What do you love most about the job?
When we started in November 1993, I was working at a daily newspaper. I fell in love with the Hinz&Kunzt project and I’m still here 23 years later. I’m very privileged because I always wanted to be part of something that helps change society; something that fights for justice and opportunities for people who don’t get many chances in life. Now I’m sitting with them in one building. I think I’m very lucky because I’m doing what I always wanted to do. And I can write a newspaper that is a social voice in this city. We are heard, and that in itself is a privilege.
What are the biggest challenges to your work and what motivates you to overcome them?
It’s very hard to see people who have so many problems every day, and knowing it takes time to make real change happen. Politically, times are getting harder so it’s getting harder to do the job but I’m still really motivated. That motivation comes from seeing that some stories have a happy ending. I love a happy ending.
We love sharing inspiring vendor stories here at INSP. Can you give us some examples?
Well of course there is Horst, a vendor of nearly nine years. He used to have a severe alcohol addiction for about half his life. Now, he is clean and he’s married and is very happy [Horst is pictured below with his wife Gudrun during their wedding ceremony in May 2014] . He sells in a very rich area of Hamburg. When he turned 50 last year he celebrated with 17 customers from that area. They all said that he is a real hero to them because he survived, and managed something they never had to manage.
We also had a reader call our office to say she had a house she doesn’t need and wanted to rent it to us. It used to be her family home, and five people are living there now. They are all formerly homeless – they lived under the Kennedy Bridge here in Hamburg. I love stories like that and I think we need stories like that to motivate us to go on.
I also think the political atmosphere is harder but the acceptance from people is bigger because we are well-known in Hamburg. It’s a big city, but in terms of what we do it’s a very small circle. Hamburg is a really good city to have a street paper in.
Why is that?
It’s to do with how people connect with our vendors. Many customers will look out for vendors and when they are not on their pitch, customers will call us up and ask where they are – ‘is he ok? What can we do?’ The vendors’ customers care deeply about them, they are their friends. We even had a marriage between a vendor and a customer. I think the most important thing is that vendors are feeling well in their place and are accepted.
Do you have a message for your fellow street papers around the world and their vendors?
Don’t give up. It’s always better to get up than to give in (that’s one of our slogans). I hope all vendors and street papers around the world will continue to have the power, the energy and the motivation to stand up instead of give in.
Read Hinz&Kunzt vendor Carmen’s story.