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“I hope the whole community will rise again”: Street paper vendors look beyond the pandemic

A note to readers: Street papers provide trustworthy independent journalism and an opportunity for society’s most vulnerable and marginalised to earn a meaningful income. The impact of the pandemic has severely affected their work. Find out how to support your local street paper through subscriptions and donations here.


“This year has been very challenging and filled with sorrow for everybody,” says Lawrence Odion, a 26-year-old, originally from Nigeria, who sells street papers. It’s a sentiment people at all levels of society should be able to agree with. Lawrence works with zebra., a magazine based in the South Tyrol region of northern Italy. Back in the early throes of 2020, the severity with which COVID-19 hit Italy was frightening, and yet still seemed far away to many, despite warnings that should have been heeded from its impact in east Asia.

The onset of a year that became defined by the pandemic seems both exceedingly long ago and painfully fresh in the memory. Most people’s lives have been affected. For society’s most vulnerable and marginalised, it has exacerbated problems already familiar to them: food security, unstable housing, social isolation, income, and access to social services as they are weakened at a time they’re needed most. Street papers, which exist to alleviate that strain – providing employment to those who are homeless, in poverty, excluded from the job market or on life’s fringes – have been impacted too. It’s been hard, but the effects they’ve felt have not been uniform. For every group that has found times tough, there have been some glimmers of light.

The new year approaches, and with it some hope that there is an end of the coronavirus tunnel in sight – a vaccine, and the potential for homeless, refugees, and other marginalised people to receive it early on – even if the social and structural consequences of the pandemic may be felt into the future. INSP checked in with street paper vendors of differing circumstances across the world to reflect on these past months and to look forward – sometimes with an understandable sense of anxiety, and sometimes with hope.

Japan

The Big Issue Japan, along with other east Asian street papers, was the first to understand how the coronavirus may affect their work and the lives of the country’s socially excluded population.

“People were gone, and sales were in the single digits, sometimes zero,” says a 64-year-old Tokyo-based vendor who only wants to be identified as ‘ST’. The initial slump in his income was made up by support from the magazine’s fundraising and a special subscription service developed in response to the pandemic. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without it,” he says.

ST has been living in a 7.3 square metre room with a roommate for over a decade. “It makes me feel safe because it’s a private space with a roof. I’m not a materialistic person, so here with just a futon to sleep on is enough for me,” he says.

Big Issue Japan vendor 'S.T.' (he does not want to reveal his identity) at his pitch in Tokyo. [Courtesy of The Big Issue Japan]

ST still has anxieties about being on trains and in public bathrooms and supermarkets because of the virus despite the precautions he takes, and worries deeply about how the pandemic has run roughshod on the city’s businesses.

“I started walking. At one point, I was surprised to see more people in the park than usual. I guess we all think the same way,” says ST. “When I went for a walk the other day, I was stunned to see there were only two stores open in the shopping arcade I passed. It was painful to see the posters of ‘temporarily shut down’ or ‘closed’. A few of the izakaya and restaurants had banners saying: ‘We will go out of business if we don’t do something. Please help us’.

“I still can’t find hope for 2021. Rather than hope, I’m more concerned about whether we’ll really host the Olympics in Tokyo. Vaccines, athletes, visitors from oversees…would people enjoy it? I’m optimistic that the world returns to normal with the end of COVID, but it’s difficult to predict what will happen right now.”

Taiwan

Every morning at 11am, would Li Longzhu place a small wooden stool just inside an entrance of National Chengchi University in Taipei, ready for a day of selling The Big Issue Taiwan. Unfortunately, since the pandemic began, he has had to move slightly further away from this spot due to restrictions on who can freely go in and out of the university entrance. He no longer finds it so easy catching the eyes of students as the flow out.

“On campus, students passing by could see me when they went out for lunch, but now sitting in this small corner, who would notice?” he bemoans. “You can’t enter the school even if you go to the bathroom, you have to go to the McDonald’s across the street.”

Li has also struggled with lower back pain and bone spurs this year. He can’t manage to bring back issues of the magazine to his pitch anymore which are often popular with his customers, missing out on vital income.

Big Issue Taiwan vendor Li Longzhu. [Credit: 陳芊余 / The Big Issue Taiwan]

“Taiwan’s virus prevention results are very good,” says Li, more optimistically, “unlike other countries, which have been locked down for several months. So, I have not been afraid from beginning to end. After all, there are few cases here, and I am also very open to life and death. I can tell you that people have great desires and great worries. Since this larger situation cannot be controlled, worry only adds to the trouble.

“I hope [next year] can reduce a little pain, for the world and my back!”

The Big Issue Taiwan has been successful in supporting vendors, adopting a ‘pay it forward’ scheme in collaboration with SinoPac Bank, similar to the one devised by The Big Issue (UK). The magazine also worked with a local social enterprise to regularly handout free rice to vendors who have been particularly hard up.

Sweden

Sweden has turned heads with its hands-off approach to the pandemic. For those selling street papers, it has meant there has been little disruption to their ability to earn an income. Gothenburg-based magazine Faktum did not have to halt selling or pull its vendors from the street. Vendors even saw an increase in sales as regular customers who would usually be away on holiday stayed in the cities.

“We are in the front line when we sell the street paper, but I don’t have much choice. I need the money,” says 58-year-old Faktum vendor Thomas Jakobsson about his experiences these past months. “For a month now I’ve had my own apartment, but before I lived at a place which I shared with other people. And I knew they had coronavirus there. Food was served at a buffet table and that didn’t feel safe. I tried to keep my distance because I don’t want to get sick.

Faktum vendor Thomas Jakobsson. [Courtesy of Faktum]

“I’m such a cuddly and physical person so I think it’s shitty. I used to give a hug to people when they bought the paper sometimes, but that isn’t possible anymore.”

Thomas has spent the pandemic getting sober and writing an autobiographical story for a book Faktum is publishing.

“‘Thank goodness’, that’s what I feel for 2021,” says Thomas. “Hopefully COVID has calmed down and, since I’ve become sober, I can move on. I have contact with my children again. My daughter said ‘Dad, it feels like you came back from the dead’. I’m so happy about that.

“I have positive things to look forward to. I try to spread joy. And when you give, you get back. It’s easy, yet difficult.”

South Africa

Big Issue South Africa vendor Shadrack Rolihlahla, 57, lives in Delft, a township in Cape Town, where crime and poverty is high. According to the street paper’s social work team, since the pandemic began, crime has increased as unemployment is high.

“I do not feel safe as people are being killed every day due to violence,” says Shadrack. “In my community, people are suffering. Some people lost their jobs and people died from COVID-19. Since [the pandemic started] we do not have access to social services or health facilities. Everything is like watching a movie – so unreal.”

Big Issue South Africa vendor Shadrack Rolihlahla. [Courtesy of The Big Issue South Africa]

The social work team added that food security is the biggest concern for the communities their vendors come from. People are being encouraged to create their own vegetable gardens and using skills they’ve learned selling the street paper and applying it to selling arts and crafts, and even food items, to earn extra income.

“This year was hard having little food, no work and my family suffering,” says Shadrack. “I hope and pray that COVID-19 goes away and that next year work will be better and life will have more opportunities.”

Argentina

“Emotionally, the pandemic has not really affected me – I was not locked up much!” says Carlos Ariel Amadeo. “It’s been the same normal worry that anyone has. No depression, just worried that this will get worse, and with a little fear about the illness and uncertainty about the economic situation. No one is safe. But yes, I feel safe. I am not obsessed with it; I live a normal life.”

Ariel is a vendor for Buenos Aires magazine Hecho en Bs As, a publication which has dealt with an extremely strict, prolonged lockdown and the sudden death of its founder Patricia Merkin. Despite the potential for instability, it has continued to support those it works with.

“We have been in permanent contact with vendors,” says vendor coordinator Ángeles Mezzera. The street paper’s ties to a parallel food project – ‘A cultivar que se acaba el mundo’ – which trades in organic food, advocates fair trade and employees socially excluded people, many of whom are also vendors, meant that Hecho staff could respond to any urgent needs.

Hecho en Bs As vendor Carlos Ariel Amadeo. [Credit: Eugenia Kais / Hecho en Bs As]

“From there [the food project’s space] they were given access to food, subsidies were managed that the Argentine government had provided to all people with self-employed jobs, and some vendors were distributed unsold magazines that they could deliver,” adds Mezzera. “We also moved our art workshop to the food project since it has an outdoor patio, so that vendors can continue producing art. We’ll soon hold an auction for the sale of works, generating additional income.”

“If it hadn’t been for [financial] help from the government, I would be at the bottom of the river,” says Ariel, who has been renting a room from a family who live near the Vélez Sarsfield football team stadium. “[Hopefully next year] we can let this crap go and start a normal life again.”

Austria

In Vienna, things are looking a little better for street paper vendors now compared to the initial March coronavirus lockdown. The local magazine Augustin has learned how to continue selling even as restrictions remain in place, for example moving those who sold in bars, restaurants and cafes to busy spots on the streets.

One issue that persists is how the lockdowns has affected refugees and asylum seekers, a cohort of which make up Augustin’s vendor group. This community rely on street paper income and it has been severely hit due to sales restrictions and drops. They have also been unable to go back and forth from their home country due to tighter border restrictions, and fear sanctions from local government. An already precarious living situation has been made more uncertain by the pandemic.

Augustin vendor Susi. [Courtesy of Augustin]

Augustin’s social workers also pointed out that social isolation of their vendors – both from their colleagues and from Augustin staff – has also been a worry.

“I hope my partner can get back to Austria again,” says vendor Anna, 59. “He was deported to Nigeria and I miss him very much.”

60-year-old vendor Susi adds: “I’m very sad I can’t visit my family. My dad is more than 80 years old and I haven’t seen him in a long time now. Right now, I’m thinking of the Augustin stall where we usually sell pear cider during the Christmas season. I love working there, but we can’t do it this year.

“I wish everything would get back to normal. I would like to visit the vendor lounge at Augustin to drink coffee and talk to my colleagues. And, of course, I wish more people would buy the paper again and we could talk properly without distance. I’m feeling a bit lonely.”

USA

66-year old Al Mayfield continues to sell Street Spirit in Oakland. The tragedies of coronavirus are nothing new to Al. He lost two brothers at a young age – one to medical issues and another to a motorcycle accident – and, after being violently robbed in 1994, fell into a coma. He survived, but had to have a plate installed in his stomach and his leg amputated. He has been shifted around homes due to circumstances outside his control and bandied about homeless shelters.

Street Spirit vendor Al Mayfield. [Courtesy of Street Spirit]

Through it all, there has been support – the Citizens Neighborhood Assistance Program, the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, and Street Spirit. He now lives in subsidised housing with one of his surviving brothers in North Oakland.

Most of all, he has missed church during the pandemic and hopes to be back. “Church is in my heart,” he says. Despite a life full of losses and grief, and now this global disaster, Al is an optimistic person. He is still selling street papers and living his life. “Try to grasp hold of the good stuff and be happy about it,” he says.

Canada

Most will now be familiar with the term ‘pre-existing health conditions’. Dealing with a personal medical emergency at the same time as a global medical emergency seems an unfathomably difficult task. 69-year-old Roger Perreault, who sells L’Itinéraire in Montréal, has been battling breast cancer which has spread to his liver and lungs. He also has glaucoma, lymphedema and a hernia. His outlook for the diagnosis provides a lot of food for thought when making our own optimistic approaches to life right now.

“Apart from all that, things aren’t too bad!” says Roger. “Psychologist, Brigitte Lavoie once said: It’s in the case of extreme suffering that human beings find unsuspected sources of strength that were inside of them all along and they didn’t know it. Give yourself the permission to do what makes you feel good, she said.

L'Itinéraire vendor Roger Perreault. [Credit: Adil Boukind]

“Those thoughts on resilience changed my way of seeing things, made me adopt new behaviours and understand the world differently. I should never be blocked by the things I cannot do, by what I may never do.

“For example, I put all my efforts into saving up for a trip last summer. I was planning on going to Spain and Germany. So much for my plans! At least for this year…

“I started going out for long walks that soon became discovery adventures in my city. It sure beats being bored and asking myself what I could have done if only. Those activities allow me to really enjoy the present moment, rather than dream of it. Why live life based on an uncertain future? When I wake up in the morning, I don’t ask myself what I’m going to do anymore, but what I’m going to do with what is offered to me. At night I take a moment to appreciate the chance I’ve had of living that day and what it’s brought me. And you know what? I feel a lot better.”

***

Across the country, in British Columbia, Megaphone vendor Peter Thompson is feeling cut off from his family and heritage due to the pandemic. But he has also relied on the history and traditions of his community (Peter is Nlaka’pamux Nation) to get through.

Megaphone vendor Peter Thompson. [Courtesy of Megaphone]

“My traditional medicines have played a big part in keeping me healthy during COVID-19,” says Peter. “I regularly smudge my home and I cook for myself to keep healthy. I have been using lots of garlic and lemons, and eating a lot of oranges and apples to keep my health good. I make a hot lemon, ginger, and garlic drink that keeps my immune system strong.

“My hope for 2021 is that the pandemic will end so I can see my family in person again. I am especially missing my family that live on my traditional territory near Lytton, B.C. Normally I go back home every summer to see family and re-stock my traditional foods, like pine mushrooms, venison, fish, and moose meat. I also gather my sage and cedar supply for the year. I wasn’t able to go this year, so if I can just see my family and visit home in 2021, I will be happy.”

Macedonia

Hearing from vendors, social isolation has been almost as troubling as loss of income. “Working for me means not only earning money, but communicating with different people, making friends, getting familiar with strangers,” Igor Shajnoski, 32, who sells Lice v Lice in Struga and lives with his family in a house in the nearby village of Radozda on the banks of the UNESCO protected Lake Ohrid.

Igor has had long periods of not working this year because of lockdown, but feels good to know he has a position with the street paper and takes much pride in his work. “My wish is for the best sales at the magazine. I am working for that and I know in turn it will improve my life.”

“Of course, I hope that 2021 will be better. Is it not that we all do? All the time? We live in hope even when life is uncertain.”

Lice v Lice vendor Igor Shajnoski. [Credit: Goran Ristovski]

Italy

Back to Italy, zebra. and vendor Lawrence. “The current lockdown we have to face worries me, both on the financial as well as on the emotional level,” he says. “It was very hard having to stay at home during the first lockdown (9 March to 11 May), various thoughts were stressing me out.”

Back then, zebra. had to contend with a sudden period of no street selling and lots of unsold papers. Lawrence hadn’t yet become a vendor.

“Besides the economic damage, the social impact is enormous,” says zebra. street worker Patrizia Insam. “We noticed that former vendors, who had previously found a job, asked us if they could come back to sell zebra. since they lost their job due to the pandemic. It turned out to be nearly impossible to find a job for anyone at that moment. In the summer, the number of people who asked to be part of the project rose remarkably.”

That’s when Lawrence, who now sells the magazine in the city of Merano, signed up. “I knew this situation would make it even harder for me to find a job and I had to pay for rent, bills and food,” he says. “It was a big release in June when things got better for a time, even if the restrictions were still very tough, like having to wear a mask at all times I’m very grateful that I could become part of zebra. This time, at least, I have some support from the street paper during the lockdown, which is comforting me.”

zebra. vendor Lawrence Odion. [Courtesy of zebra.]

Lawrence has a small place to stay but he, like many zebra. vendors – like many street paper vendors, like anyone living with minimal means – is still in a period of uncertainty.

“Luckily, most of our vendors have some place to stay, but the fear to lose it grows,” says Insam. “Often they share apartments with quite a lot of people or live in camps. It is very trying to live with a bunch of people in a narrow space over such a long period of time.

“Difficulties grew, but we also saw the potential of the street paper, the support of the community and the willingness of the vendors to never give up.”

“[December and January] is a time to be happy, to celebrate,” says Lawrence. “I hope 2021 will bring back a little bit of normality and this health crisis can be overcome, offering the possibility to all people to enjoy themselves again and to open new doors. I’m convinced, there is something bigger to come and that we will have a better life soon. I’m quite optimistic about it.

“Personally, my biggest wish for next year is to finally see my daughter, who is living in France with her mother. I hope though that the whole community will rise again, will be able to meet friends, that people can run their businesses, get a job or even go to the beach again. That’s what I believe will happen. What we couldn’t achieve in 2020, we’ll achieve in 2021 together.”

Thanks to all street paper staff who helped contribute to this feature. Additional editing by Katherine Haines.