INSP: 20 years helping street papers change lives

By Callum McSorley

For many people living in poverty or sleeping on the streets, becoming the vendor of a street paper can save their lives. Given their first copies and a pitch to sell on, they become a small business, working and earning their way out of destitution.

All across the world street papers are helping to lift their vendors out of homelessness, not just with the paper itself but with dedicated social workers and programmes that fit the individual needs of the vendors.

From its base in Glasgow, Scotland, INSP (International Network of Street Papers) supports 122 of the world’s street papers with start-up and editorial support, staff and vendor training, funding and networking. The charity also helps to raise awareness of the ever-growing problem of homelessness.

Founded in 1994, this year INSP celebrates its 20th year working with the street paper movement.

In that time INSP’s members have acquired a combined global audience of 6 million and their 28,000 vendors have earned more than $40 million this year. Street paper vendors’ stories show the power of the movement to save lives and alter public views on homelessness.

Vendor and artist Patrick Jansen, who sells fiftyfifty in Dusseldorf, Germany, began using heroin after problems at home. His drug use led to homelessness and subsequently he was diagnosed HIV positive. For him, selling street papers has given him a goal and helped him to come to terms with his diagnosis and move forwards again, particularly through fiftyfifty’s unique arts projects.

“Since July 2008, I’ve been selling fiftyfifty, I’m clean now and doing everything the job centre offers me. I’m painting again, with brushes and on screens, and when I have enough pictures I can exhibit them in the fiftyfifty gallery. I’m focused on the future now because the past can’t be changed,” he said.

“Selling The Big Issue in the North helps with my mental health issues. It gives me a reason to get out of bed.”

Emma Folan, a vendor of The Big Issue in the North, based in the north of England, has learning difficulties and suffered depression for years after getting out of a violent relationship.

She said: “Selling The Big Issue in the North helps with my mental health issues. It gives me a reason to get out of bed. If I didn’t have this to motivate me I’d just be sitting at home feeling sorry for myself. It really is a lifeline for me. My message to homeless people is that if I can get my life on track, in spite of all the things I’ve had to cope with, anybody can.”

Emma points to the fact that homelessness is often stigmatised but vendors like herself are helping to change the public’s perceptions.

“I think some people believe that all street vendors suffer from alcohol and drug addiction but that’s not true. Anybody can fall on hard times. The Big Issue in the North helps the vulnerable too,” she said.

Indeed, food banks are rapidly growing in many parts of the world, with food rations now being stretched to breaking point as little money is being invested into these life-saving programmes.

Reginald Black is a homeless man in the US capital, Washington DC, where an estimated one fifth of residents live in poverty.

Reginald began selling Street Sense in 2008. Since then he has become involved in not just selling the paper but contributes poetry and prose, as well as learning journalistic techniques and design skills from the Street Sense staff and writing course. But above all he considers himself an advocate for the homeless, and Street Sense helps him do this.

“There is so much money and policy going around, that no-one worries about the faces. They walk right by. Yeah, I may be homeless, but I have so much to offer,” he said.

For Patrick, Emma, Reginald, and their 28,000 fellow vendors around the world, the power to make a difference to their lives now lies with the reader. Stop and talk to your local vendor; buy a copy and become part of the most important social movement in the world.