Finding dignity on Berlin streets Homeless: In Germany, selling "street magazines" has helped some enterprising residents find their way out of poverty and into a decent living.

SUN JOURNAL

November 05, 1998|By Carter Dougherty | Carter Dougherty,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BERLIN -- Darting into the subway car, a man pulls a stack of tabloid-sized "street magazines" from under his jacket. As the train rolls out of the station, he speaks loudly to avoid being drowned out by the screech of metal on metal.

Buying this paper, he explains, offers people down on their luck -- homeless people -- a chance to bootstrap their way to a decent living. Better to work than to beg.

Berliners barely look up from their own newspapers, and lucky is the seller who can unload two copies in a single subway car. But the customer always receives a sincere-sounding "thank you." There is seldom time for small talk before the train arrives in the next station. The salesman tucks the papers under his coat and disappears as soon as the doors open.

Uwe Holtzerland, 54, tall and thin with a weathered face, once repaired high-pressure boilers in a Berlin factory. Like many East Germans, he saw his job disappear after German reunification in 1990. Shifting nervously from one foot to another, he explains that selling Motz, one of Berlin's two street papers, rescued him from the streets and brought him to a housing project sponsored by the paper.

"You have to be able to sell," he says. "It's just like selling goods in a store." Holtzerland has sold Motz for four years.

Helmut Gispert, an editor at Motz, reckons that 60 to 80 such newspapers exist in Europe. They began in the 1970s, when the homeless began distributing among themselves leaflets and crude pamphlets with advice on the daily struggles of finding food and safe sleeping places.

These "homeless newspapers" evolved by the early 1990s into "street magazines" that tackled broader social problems that foster homelessness -- and began to interest people who have a roof over their heads.

In Berlin, two street magazines compete. A 1995 merger of magazines with the untranslatable names Mob and Hatz produced Motz, which, as it happens, is translatable. Motzen is a German verb meaning "to gripe," although the paper's editors insist that the similarity is entirely accidental. The other magazine, Strassenfeger, or Street Cleaner, evokes more clearly its origins.

Homeless people purchase the newspapers wholesale at locations around Berlin for 1 deutsche mark (about 60 cents) copy. Then they retail the papers for 2 marks and pocket the difference. Top sellers can move as many as 600 copies every two weeks, earning a substantial monthly income, though most sellers tend to buy only about 20 to 30 copies at once.

The competition between the papers is fierce. Motz, which retails on the streets for 2 marks, charges the sellers only half a mark at wholesale, boosting the seller's potential profit. A substantial group of Strassenfeger's sellers defected to Motz. "That," says Strassenfeger Editor Stefan Schneider, "is war. Motz would like to do away with us."

Because sellers have, as Gispert puts it, "a vital interest" in selling what they purchase, circulation numbers of the newspapers can be reasonably estimated on the basis of how many papers are sold to the sales force. Gispert says Motz sells about 22,000 copies every two weeks, and this number is growing. Schneider says Strassenfeger's circulation is about 50,000, distributed around Germany.

This year, both papers slung ink at each other until complaints from readers and sellers forced a truce and a return to serious themes. Recent issues of Motz have featured the activities of tenants'-rights groups and the problems of refugees in Berlin. A series told of one man's descent into homelessness after losing his job, and how he came to sell Motz before dying this year.

Street sales furnish all of Motz's income and 90 percent of Strassenfeger's. The latter also gets a small government subsidy and private donations from sympathetic Berliners.

Both papers have staffs of three, augmented by contributions from former and current homeless people, free-lance journalists and activists. Both papers sell a bit of advertising, employ free-lance photographers and contract with local printers for production.

Motz offers stories on homelessness and on related issues, such as unemployment and housing. An edition published shortly before the recent German election analyzed the various parties' positions on housing policy. A nearly yearlong series has covered the history of the Berlin subway stations, where Motz salespeople do much of their business.

Strassenfeger editors have picked more controversial themes, which are chosen at meetings of the staff and salespeople. A recent issue called for the decriminalization of hemp. Schneider, the editor, argues that the newspapers should be "loud, uncomfortable, provocative and demanding" in order to bring attention to the plight of society's weakest members.

The paper also covered the case of a homeless man who was punished for selling a similar paper in the city of Ulm, and plans for a low-cost housing project in Tuebingen. Strassenfeger also regularly prints letters to the editor.

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