November 28, 2012

a man on the street holding a magazine...

Homelessness is not an issue that I really have that much exposure to. For the most part I grew up in a province of Canada without a large homeless population, and with a premier who, while actually in elected office, walked (drunkenly) into a homeless shelter where he berated and threw money at them. Or, there was this other time he told them all to move to Vancouver, because he ‘heard it was nice there’. While these references may seem barbarian, it represented about as close as I got to homeless people, after all, I lived in the burbs.

In late spring this year I found myself in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a starting point on a 860km drive south to New Orleans, and a stop I honestly only made to visit Third Man Records (Jack White’s record store)(If you don’t know who Jack White is, or the relative importance he has with me… sigh… Don’t worry; he is not the focus of this entry) 

(Back to Nashville) I was lucky enough to be picked up from the airport by a great friend, who shall remain anonymous, let’s refer to him as Bam. Anywho, Bam and I were talking as we struggled to find the interstate, and to pass the time Bam spun a yarn (one of many talents for the man). He stated that Nashville (aka the music city) has a contract with the homeless people, wherein they are not allowed to beg for money. They must play musical instruments for donations. There is also a stipulation that they must sing with a twangy voice (a la country and western stars) and only play instruments of taste (no toilet seats, and such). Fine details, and thematic approach aside, it was an example of giving the homeless legitimate sources of income. Something I thought was amazing and revolutionary! Yet in reality was a practice I was totally unaware actually occurs (not the Nashville singing thing, that is fictitious).

One example of such occurs in Hamburg, where I currently live. Hamburg isn’t a city with a large amount of street vendors at subway exits, but you will actually see a fair amount of men and women selling magazines. I always thought it to be strange though; they were only selling one magazine, Hintz & Kunzt. It wasn’t until I said something totally naïve, and probably regrettable (if I could remember what it was), when a German roommate told me the magazine was published solely for the homeless to sell. 

Since this earth-shattering day, these people, and this process have fascinated me. Not specifically because I like the magazine, despite the fact I have never bought it (it’s in German, although that’s a thin excuse, call me an ass if you must), I find process around it, which is interesting. If you want become a ‘merchant’ for the magazine you must register with the company, and are given a sales kit, including a vest, which serves as a uniform of sorts and, a photo id card (which also served to confuse me in correctly identifying these people, as I never would have figured that homeless people would have photo id cards. Hell, there are massive problems in the US with non-homeless people not having valid photo ID) Once approved as a merchant, the homeless venture around the city and distribute the magazine, giving themselves a legitimate source of income. As I looked more into the process, I stumbled upon more information that makes me look even more like a naïve dumbass. 

Hamburg is not alone in this practice, in fact there are several publications like this around the world, originally starting in New York and the UK, spreading outwards from there. Shockingly (from my perspective) Korea is on the list of cities with such a publication. I recognized the name immediately ‘The Big Issue’ I remember people selling these magazines outside movie theatres, and in busy city intersections. I always thought it was an entertainment magazine that the theatres were hocking; I never purchased this magazine (again for whatever reason). But, the fact that it exists and is noticeable actually brings to light an issue I felt was for the most part invisible in Korea due to their shame culture. 

Why did I noticed this phenomenon in Germany and not in Korea? I feel the answer to that has to do with the lack of visual overload occurring at any given moment. In Korea there are hoards of people (who don't walk in straight lines), street food carts, and layers of neon signs crisscrossing buildings. In Hamburg little of this exists; there are fewer People (who walk normally), no street vendors (except for the Christmas markets, but these are new, and not permanent) finally the buildings are just old and not emblazed with signs (with some graffiti though). Yet in the last few years I have tried to pride myself on being open and aware of the situations and goings on around me. I have tried to look past stereotypes and be a progressive person, I usually feel for the most part that I succeeded although this is something that I glaringly missed. 

My exposure probably has something to do with it, I have only given money to one homeless person in my life, it was a drunken exchange in Montreal, where I loved the fact that he had a sign that read “I’m gonna spend your money on booze”. It was a stereotypical example, and while that is probably how he evoked a cash response from me, it just served to reinforce that stereotype. I figure this new revelation will help create a better perception for me I'm left with a thought: I really like that these initiatives exist in reality, and not only in tales spun to bide the time in Nashville. 

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