Last week, I was fortunate to attend the conference of the International Network of Street Papers (INSP). This is a trade organization of more than 100 papers like Real Change, with membership spanning 34 nations. Between INSP member papers, about 20 million street papers are sold each year around the world.
This year’s conference was hosted in Glasgow by The Big Issue Scotland.
Though they’re all unique in some ways, street papers all over the world offer vendors similar benefits: A means to earn an immediate income that puts vendors in more direct control of their lives. They also offer a network of reader relationships that create community, support and validation to newspaper sellers.
And of course, the chance to be part of something bigger than oneself.
Wendell, a successful vendor who came to the conference from Washington, D.C., summed this up in a sentence.
“When I’m out there,” he said, “I’m not selling a paper. I’m selling a movement.”
The demographic of vendors is different, too. Most international street papers are centralized in cities and regions that do not have homelessness on the scale of the United States, let alone along the West Coast, where the urban development gold rush has spiked the numbers again and again to the point of absurdity.
In Europe, where residents have access to more housing and social support and less mass homelessness, street papers are just as likely to be sold by immigrants or Roma people as those who live outside. When their vendors see what’s happening here, they are shocked.
But that safety net isn’t bulletproof; they are continually losing ground.
This is particularly true in the U.K., where social spending cuts, austerity and Brexit are creating instability to rival our own.
One standout moment of the conference came during the final keynote, presented by Suzanne Fitzpatrick, director of housing policy at an outfit called I-Sphere (Institute for Social Policy, Housing, Environment, and Real Estate). Fitzpatrick’s remarks centered on homelessness myths and realities, including one often-cited statement: We are all just two or three paychecks away from homelessness.
Turns out, not so much.
Her research, conducted in the U.K., examined four decades of individuated data, which reflected the experience of thousands of people.
Then, she and her team were able to cross-tabulate various life situations to arrive at one’s actual odds of becoming homeless.
They found a wide disparity based on gender, ethnicity, neighborhood and, most significantly, exposure to childhood trauma.
They also found that a map of homelessness across the U.K. was basically a map of English postindustrial decay.
In one scenario, a White male university graduate with a relatively affluent childhood, who lived with parental support until 26 and is single with no kids, has about a .06 percent chance, or a bit less than 1-in-200 odds, of experiencing homelessness by age 30.
Contrast this with a mixed-ethnicity woman who experienced poverty as a child and was raised by a single parent, left school at 16, rents without a partner and has children by age 26.
Her odds of experiencing homelessness by age 30 are 71.2 percent, or better than two-in-three odds.
Put simply, some of us are a few paychecks away from homelessness, while others are much closer, and others still are almost completely insulated. So why does this myth persist, both in the U.K. and here in the United States, where a similar study might likely produce similar results?
Put simply, some of us are a few paychecks away from homelessness, while others are much closer, and others still are almost completely insulated.
Two reasons: First, people think that this idea produces sympathy — if it could happen to me, perhaps I’ll care more and want to support progressive legislation and the charities that are helping.
However, another study that investigated whether this was true found that it is not. Instead, this argument was found to be largely ineffective.
The real value, it seems, is that the “it can happen to anyone” frame is just fundamentally depoliticizing.
If homelessness is just a random event, like getting T-boned by some drunk running a red light, then there are no specific social causes to be addressed. No opportunity gaps. No wealth disparities. No gender inequality. No legacy of racist zoning policies or active discrimination.
But we know better. We know that there is no justice without equity, and that the root causes of homelessness run long and deep.
You can hear more about homeless myths at Real Change’s 24th Annual Breakfast on Sept. 18, where 500 of our friends will celebrate our vendors from 8–9 a.m. at the Washington State Convention Center. Please reserve your seat today online, or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
Check out the full Aug. 29 - Sept. 4 issue.
Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.