In newspaper, hope for homeless Publishing: A growing South African monthly employs homeless people and creates awareness about the realities of living in poverty without shelter.

Sun Journal

January 25, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- It is the unlikeliest of media success stories: a paper written by the homeless poor and bought by the well-housed rich.

Homeless Talk, a monthly tabloid, is selling so many copies in this commercial capital these days that it is to be changed from a local to a national publication.

"Homelessness is a problem nationwide," says the newspaper's coordinator, Glenn Grant, who acts as editor, advertising director and marketing chief. "It is not just associated with Johannesburg."

When it was founded by a local minister here almost four years ago -- to provide this city's hapless with something to do and its wealthy with something to think about -- it sold 500 copies. Last month it sold 30,000 -- extraordinary growth by any standard.

The 16-page tabloid is an eclectic mixture of articles, often written in stilted language, about issues most normal newspapers would never address.

The editing is loose, the grammar frequently flawed. The "facts" are rarely proved and the opinions are frequently outlandish. But, in its quirky way, it is a good read, offering insights into some dark and rarely visited corners of life.

Readers of recent copies could learn of the serious impact of rain on those without a proper roof over their heads; the sense of pride and longing that many with little else can still cling to; the satisfaction over one of their number being buried with dignity by the Sisters of Mercy; the alleged beating and torture of illegal immigrants who tried to escape from a repatriation center; and an alleged encounter with racism at a local Salvation Army hostel.

Every Monday the writers, all from the ranks of the homeless and some formerly vendors of the paper, hold their editorial conference. For each story they are paid from $16 to $40. At a recent session they decided to fan out across the city "to talk to someone for 10 minutes."

The result was a full page of "Street snaps at twilight."

Writer Monwa Skosana returned from the assignment with a grim account: "Scooters, hooters, music from the nearby shebeens. It's Johannesburg central, the street is Bree. Some people who know Johannesburg better describe this venue as the center of hell. That's where I met this bold and energetic writer of Homeless Talk, Otis Finck. He approached me with a sad voice. 'Saw two glue sniffers robbing someone in the park just now. Left the poor man naked.' "

Further along Bree Street, at its corner with Rissik, Homeless Talk's Roland Oliphant encountered Roberta, "a fat lovely lady from KwaZulu Natal a kindly person to talk to."

Roberta, also a street vendor, told the reporter she was worried about the flood of illegal immigrants who have moved into Johannesburg, stealing her trade. Several violent clashes between competing local and foreign vendors have made headlines in the mainstream press here.

"These people must go back to their own country so that we can benefit from our business selling on the streets," said Roberta.

The paper, which boasts of "Helping the Homeless Help Themselves," sells best in the posh, northern suburbs, where market research shows that residents buy it as much to ease their consciences as to catch up on news and views from the streets.

"Our readers are predominantly white A and B [higher income classes]," says Grant, 40, a former advertising manager for the national radio service, in an interview in his downtown office.

"Basically it is a guilt buy. They perceive it as a form of begging.

"Forty percent put it on the dashboard as a neon sign saying, 'Leave me alone. I have done my good deed for the month.' "

But the other 60 percent, he says, read it. A problem is the lack of sales in the black community.

"We have to educate the black community, in which there is a stigma attached to homelessness," says Grant. "If they buy a homeless paper they feel superstitiously it could involve them in becoming homeless."

The paper has launched an "awareness" campaign to convince potential readers, black and white, that the street-corner vendors are not engaged in a form of begging but are running their own mini-businesses.

Their energy, enthusiasm and persistence is based on the profit motive. Of the 40-cent selling price, the vendors keep 25 cents. A beginner might make $40 a month, a top seller $600.

Each vendor is given 10 free copies to launch into the world of commerce.

"We have an open-door policy," says Grant. "Anybody who is homeless or unemployed can come in and get gainful employment by distributing the paper."

Each vendor is trained and must sign a code of conduct before joining the sales force, promising to be sober and courteous and to wear the uniform green and yellow smock, or bib. The paper carries a strap line saying: "Please buy from badged, bibbed and sober sellers only."

Originally, there were just seven vendors. Today there are 500. They are stationed at almost every traffic intersection in the northern suburbs, and are steadily spreading to other less affluent areas.

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