27 August 2014

INSP Conference Illustrations by Tony Mckay


25 August 2014

‘Life on the bridge: Sharon’s story’ republished

Ireland's Big Issue
Sharon Payne has spent many of her 47 years of life homeless and trying to survive on the streets of London, UK. As well as caring for her sick husband and disabled friend, Payne sells The Big Issue – getting up in the early hours of the morning to put in a hard day’s graft at her London Bridge pitch.

Freelance journalist Danielle Batist followed Sharon on a typical day selling magazines in the British capital, seeking to destroy the stereotypes surrounding homelessness.

This touching story, told both by Danielle and Sharon herself, was republished by Ireland’s Big Issue.

The article can still be downloaded here.

Leben auf der Brücke: Die Geschichte von Sharon neu veröffentlicht

Sharon Payne war viele Jahre ihres 47-jährigen Lebens obdachlos und versuchte auf den Straßen Londons zu überleben. Während sie sich um ihren kranken Ehemann und einen behinderten Freund kümmert, verkauft Payne The Big Issue. Jeden Morgen steht sie früh auf, um ihre Schufterei an ihrem Standort London Bridge zu beginnen.

Die freie Journalisten Danielle Batist verbrachte einen typischen Tag mit Sharon und versuchte Magazine in der britischen Hauptstadt zu verkaufen und die Vorurteile gegenüber Obdachlosigkeit zu zerstören.

Diese berührende Geschichte, sowohl von Danielle und Sharon selber erzählt, wurde vom irländischen Big Issue neu veröffentlicht.

Der Artikel kann hier nach wie vor runtergeladen werden.

22 August 2014

Jill Brown: Barlinnie Prison Blues

By Callum McSorley

“They do like doing Johnny Cash,” laughs Jill Brown, a Glasgow musician and former STV newsreader with an unusual take on what makes a good gig venue, and a good backing band.

Though tonight she’s just finished playing for the international delegates at the INSP’s 18th annual conference, Brown plays the majority of her shows at some of the country’s biggest and most notorious prisons – recruiting musically talented offenders to fill out the band and play covers of their choice. And as you might expect, the Folsom Prison Blues singer is a popular pick.

Standing on the banks of the Clyde, as the sun sets over the Glasgow skyline, the striking singer explains her motivation.

“I decided to play places nobody else wanted to play, where they might not get access to live music. My aim is to try and give them some kind of normality and to restore a sense of dignity, because that gets taken away from you in prison,” she says. “It’s a really brutal environment, a really harsh environment, it’s not a holiday camp like some people seem to imagine that it is.”

For Brown, it is also about rehabilitation. “It gives them a bit of entertainment and perhaps a sense of hope that things are still going on in the outside and they can hopefully be part of that when they come out.”

Admittedly, her mother has a different opinion: “My mum always says I go to Barlinnie to depress the prisoners because my songs are a bit melancholic.”

Brown even plays for protected prisoners, including sex offenders, leading to quite a high turn-over in band members. Tonight it’s just been her and guitarist Andy Craig playing a stripped-down acoustic set, her songs a mixture of soul, folk and blues.

However much she enjoys her work, Brown admits that some of her musical colleagues have found it a tough gig. “I really like it but I’ve gone through quite a few guitarists who won’t play because they find it intimidating,” she says.

Brown’s last gig was at Barlinnie, a notorious prison in the Glasgow suburbs. “It’s not a common environment,” she allows, “and there are quite a lot of rigorous checks you have to go through. I go in and rehearse with the prisoners, which is just basically all guys. I just treat them as people and it’s quite relaxed really.”

On top of her difficulty keeping musicians, Brown also has to work hard encouraging prisoners to open themselves up enough to get involved. “We were quite warmly received,” she says of the Barlinnie concert, “but in prison it’s not the done thing to show any sign of weakness, so they can be quite a difficult audience because they don’t want to show emotion, including any sense of excitement or appreciation, but they usually do change.

“Once I’ve done all my usual chit chat they seem to kind of warm up and if they like the music that’s obviously helpful; if they don’t like it it’s tough.”

Fortunately Brown is used to standing up for herself. As she told the INSP audience early before introducing her song, ‘There’s A Right Hook Coming And A Little Bit More’, “I’m the only female in my amateur boxing club – so don’t mess with me!”

In addition to prisons, Brown also plays in homeless shelters and rehab centres for drug addicts and alcoholics. It means the crowds aren’t always what you might expect.

“People don’t really adhere to the conventions of being an audience – they talk through things, they scream through things, they shout through things, they decide they’re going to go to the toilet in the middle of the gig,” Brown says. “It’s quite off-putting but really it’s quite good to get used to that, because you’re not going to always captivate people’s attention. No one’s going to love you all the time.”

Brown is very particular about the kind of shows she plays and agreed to perform for the street paper delegates when she heard about the amazing work they do around the world, helping the homeless lift themselves out of poverty. In fact, she’s so committed that she made it along despite a nasty sore throat – several times demurely turning her head to one side during the show for a rasping cough.
This powerful sense of right and wrong seems to run through the rest of her life too. For her other job, she runs a PR and crisis management consultancy. Extremely unusually for the business, she refuses to take on anyone who doesn’t make a positive contribution to society.

A sore throat is no obstacle when you’re as motivated as this to do good for your fellow man, then. “I’ve got a strong sense of social justice,” she says, seriously, “and so everything I do is about making a difference in people’s lives.”

Photo: Kirstie Gorman

20 August 2014

Let’s redefine success

By David Meiklejohn

Social entrepreneur Josh Littlejohn (right) last week called for society to “change its attitude and change its approach” to combating homelessness.

Littlejohn’s comments came during the 18th annual INSP conference in Glasgow, in which he was sharing his experiences as co-founder of Social Bite, a growing chain of sandwich shops that are run as a social business. A quarter of his staff are people who were formerly homeless.

“I think the prevalent opinion, which was maybe my opinion before I got into it all, was that when people end up on the streets, it's generally because they've made bad decisions, they've got involved with drugs and addiction, and then they've ended up on the streets.

“What I've learned is that that's not really the case: they've had very bad hands dealt to them,” he said.

Littlejohn argued that the prevailing mindset needs to change when it comes to homelessness. “I think we need to change the way we look at people in situations of homelessness, and change our approach to it,” he said. “We have to understand that they are people of value, they can work, they can contribute, and they are not charity cases.

“I think it's going to take society generally to change its attitude and change its approach.”

Littlejohn was named the Social Entrepreneur of the year at the Scottish Business Awards in 2013 for his work on Social Bite. Explaining the start of the project, he said, “I got involved when we started employing people from backgrounds of homelessness.

“We also offered free food and drinks to people from homeless backgrounds, and so we started to get to know them and become friends and colleagues with them.”

Littlejohn said he was inspired by his local street paper, The Big Issue, and the way they offer homeless people a hand up to mainstream society.

“I think it's really important, as it gives people that step up and out of it,” he explained. “I think society has built a system where people from this really low background are stuck in a cycle where they are alienated from mainstream society.

“So I think The Big Issue is the first step to bridging that gap; you can give people that first step up on that ladder.”

All of Social Bite’s profits go to good causes, so Littlejohn is clearly not aiming to become rich, but he said “a lot of the normal motivations remain.” Since opening in 2012, Social Bite has targeted a social, rather than exclusively financial, definition of success.

“I’m motivated to try and be successful, to try and make my business a success, to try and expand,” he explained.

“I'm also motivated by seeing the lives of these people who would normally be quite excluded from the job market, seeing their lives improve and change.

“I think the world that we live in, you get taught that success equals being rich, and everybody wants to be successful. I think whether you’re from a poor background or a rich background, everyone is striving for that definition of success.

“So I think what we need to try to do is redefine success, to get away from just being about money.”

In the near future, Littlejohn aims to double his number of shops to eight, but his long term aims are even bigger.

“We've got a sort of short term aim where we want to try and get to eight shops: we want to open shops in Aberdeen, Dundee and maybe Newcastle,” he explained. “Then we're going to see how that’s working and if we're making any money or losing any money.

“If it's successful, then we want to create a really big brand to try and take on national stores.”


18 August 2014

"We are a movement built upon love"

Tim Harris, director of Real Change in Seattle, addressed the INSP’s 20th Anniversary dinner at Crowne Plaza, Glasgow on 15 August. This is a transcript of his moving speech. Real Change will host next year’s INSP Conference in Seattle.

Like John Bird and several others, I’m up here because I’ve been doing this work a long time, and have seen and learned a lot.

I began in the late 80s, inspired by Mitch Snyder and the Community for Creative Non-Violence, and their refusal to accept homelessness as being remotely normal or OK. My first arrest was in Washington DC in 1985, where I got to spend three days in DC Central Cell Block supporting his hunger strike that lasted 51 days.

Snyder lost 57lbs during that fast, and when asked by a reporter if he was afraid to die, he said, “No. It’s painful, but I have a greater fear of allowing people to languish like animals, and sometimes I’m afraid I’m not doing enough.”

We can all relate to that. Homelessness, at its core, is about the dehumanization of those whose hard lives can often be predicted from birth. The outsiders we are taught to fear and despise. Who, at best, are seen as invisible, and often come to doubt their own value as human beings.

When I started Spare Change in Boston, back in 1992, it was as an answer to a few basic questions: how do we organize a movement that includes those hardest hit by growing inequality? How do we help people meet their own basic human needs? How do we reach across class and race together to build a better world?

Others were asking similar questions. The early 90s was a period of inspiration and invention. Papers like Journal l’Itinerare in Montreal, StreetWise in Chicago, and The Big Issue in London were the first wave of the modern street paper movement.

When we started these papers, we often didn’t see what others were doing. We all took this idea, pioneered in 1989 by Street News in New York, and then, we made it up as we went along.

And we found that we weren’t alone; that we were part of a movement. The Big Issue created the International Network of Street Papers in 1994, and the North American Street Newspaper Association was founded in 1997 by StreetWise, the National Coalition for the Homeless, and Real Change. And now, we are all part of the same movement.

We have not always agreed with each other. At the founding NASNA conference, for example, about a quarter of the delegates walked out of the by-laws plenary after losing a vote on consensus verses majority rule.

But we’ve since learned that our diversity is our strength, and that what we have in common trumps our differences.

Each of our vendors is a hub of human relationships. Each newspaper is a stone thrown on pond, and creates ripples that have effect. And these ripples accumulate, to form a vast movement for human dignity and economic justice.

And our roots are deeper than many of us realize.

Our roots are in the economic disruption of industrialization, and the dislocations this created, and go back to papers like The War Cry, founded by the Salvation Army in London in 1879; to Hobo News, founded in 1915 in Cincinnati and sold by the International Workers of the World across the country; to the Catholic Worker, founded in 1933 by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day in New York.

All of these papers gave voice to the voiceless, and were sold on the street as a survival strategy by the economically marginalized.

My airplane book on this trip has been a biography of Peter Maurin, the philosopher-saint behind the Catholic Worker movement. This has been a better match as a conference read than I imagined.

In 1933, the Catholic Worker published their first issue of 2,500 copies for $57. I’m sure that many of us can relate to this as well. A year later, they had a nationwide circulation of 35,000. Five years later, it was 165,000, and international.

This is a growth curve we can all envy. And here’s the thing. I can assure you that it was not owed to the brilliance of their business plan. They couldn’t have been less interested in that. The Catholic Worker was a prophetic voice that spoke to the enormous gap between what is and what should be, and ran on pure passion.

They stood up for human dignity, and were about the reinvention of human relationships. They saw the emptiness of consumer society, and worked toward a world where everyone could find dignity in work, and in caring relationship to others.

This sort of vision and audacity is a part of our history that we need to own.

We don’t need to be saints like Maurin, committed to lives of celibacy and poverty, and living like medieval mendicant monks. But we do need to speak to the tragic gap, the difference between what is and what should be.

We need to be practical prophets, who live at the center of our passion for a better world, but can also write a business plan. Who can build inclusive organizations that improve and endure, but never, ever, become boring.

We end this conference, our Twenty Year celebration of the INSP, knowing that are all in this together, learning from each other, healing a broken world, one vendor and one newspaper at a time.
We are a movement built upon love, and that is an amazing and awe inspiring thing. We should never forget this.