In a backyard of Viennas Margarentenviertel, we found a place that feels like a Wohngemeinschaft, but is actually one of the city’s biggest centres of social inclusion: Welcome to the headquarters of Augustin, a street newspaper founded in 1995.
The initial goal of Augustin was simple: to give homeless people a small income. But what started out as a humble project with only 5 vendors, inspired by the half/half-concept of Great Britain’s “The Big Issue” (half for the vendor / half for the paper), soon grew into a Viennese institution with a biweekly run of 25.000 copies sold by 500 vendors. It also sparked off a number of other street newspapers in Austria and in neighbouring countries (Nota Bene Bratislava name Augustin as their inspiration).
But this success is also a bit of a catch: “We had to put a stop to the number of vendors we are working with. The poor should not be made to share with the poor,” Eva Rohrmoser said. She is one of four social workers at Augustin. They furthermore employ four editors and a pool of freelance journalists. The newspapers style? Good journalism with a pinch of activism. They want to make visible “how the world would look like if we treated each other respectfully.” And that it is valuable to the society to meet each other – whether poor or not, whether homeless or not, whether immigrant or not – on eye’s level, talk and laugh with each other. To reach a bigger audience, Augustin has expanded its scope to Radio and TV.
But as much as we wanted to talk to about the content of the paper, we always got back to the question “Who are the vendors?” The answer is: a diverse bunch of individuals ranging from local Roma, who never had the chance to go to school, to Georgian intellectuals. “The three biggest groups one could identify would be the German-speaking vendors, immigrants from the eastern countries and asylum seekers from African states.” And this heterogeneity is not always easy to deal with: “2002 was a crucial year, as many African refugees came to Augustin. The Austrian vendors felt threatened by the new competition, as they were younger, healthier and did not have a history of alcohol abuse.” The situation was dealt with by sitting together, talking it out and by expanding their “vendor-to-vendor” activities. Today you can be involved in the Augustin theatre group, table tennis club, choir (very famous!) and of course in their football teams (according to Eva, football does a REALLY good job). About 20% of the vendors are female, but this number may be deceptive: “We know that there must be much more women in need. We find it particularly difficult to make female homelessness visible.” Are they political? Eva’s answer offers a lot food for thought: “The vendors want a normal life. And a ‘normal life’ for them includes not being political.” Nevertheless, Augustin also publishes poems, lyrics and articles of their vendors, which are – in my point of view and in light of the context – quite political. But before I indulge into a long exhausting ramble into the meaning of politicos – "of, for, or relating to citizens" – I better start the next paragraph.
As it should be for every NGO (broad hint here…), Augustin’s main goal is to render itself obsolete. So what could Europe do to help Augustin in this mission? According to Eva, an unconditional basic income would work just fine. But, as we have heard many times on our journey, money alone is alright, but not the key: “I can see every day, how Augustin helps people to set up a social structure for their day. Many vendors are very lonely. If there was an unconditional basic income, it would be worth thinking of providing such a kind of accompanying social structure.” And until that point, European citizens would do very well in supporting their engaged street newspapers to prove that “human’s not gone, all is not lost.” And to get a new perspective – one that operates on eye’s level – on their city.
Show them that human's not gone:
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