As of mid-March, 124,000 cases of coronavirus (Covid-19) had been confirmed globally and the panic and health considerations around the outbreak had already begun to threaten the well-being and livelihood of street paper vendors, as well as people experiencing homelessness and poverty.
To combat the spread, and in response to unease over a sharp rise in deaths, the Italian government decided to place the entire country into lockdown, effectively quarantining all of its citizens. This worsens an already precarious situation for Milan-based street paper Scarp de’ tenis, which distributes in several cities across the country.
The magazine’s editor Stefano Lampertico, who is working from home along with all other Scarp de’ tenis staff, explained that vendors are no longer able to sell the magazine. There have been no sales in March, and they have decided not to print their April issue.
“The impact of the virus is terrible,” he said. “All services are closed. The number of sick people is increasing day by day. We are all living in the red zone. We can’t move. We can’t travel. We are all staying at home.”
Scarp de’ tenis was able to raise 5,000 Euros from online sales, and has been distributing that money to vendors. Staff continue to work on other projects that will benefit those who work as street paper vendors in the meantime. Though the Italian government says the restrictions will only last until April 3, there is no real sense of how long the current situation will continue.
Now that Covid-19 is being taken seriously in western countries, attention has turned to how people experiencing street homelessness may be disproportionately affected by the safeguards. People living on the street are not able to easily access bathrooms or hygiene products, and others have no choice but to live in homeless encampments and shelters, making self-isolation – the ideal method of preventing spread and contamination of the virus – extremely difficult. Carrying out the seemingly simple task of thorough hand-washing, as has been advised, is not a given for many living in this situation.
In the US, street papers and their staffs have begun to take measures to help the most vulnerable people in society, especially as the official response to the outbreak has been criticized.
“Here, we have been asked to close, and homeless encampment sweeps are continuing unabated,” said Quiver Watts, editor of San Francisco street paper Street Sheet. “Our big service fair [an event, run by Project Homeless Connect, which centralizes services for unhoused people to easily access for a day] was cancelled to prevent any possible transmission, so folks are needing extra support.”
Paula Lomazzi, director of Sacramento street paper Homeward Street Journal, explained how the transactional nature of their services and selling street papers is making everyone second guess their behavior.
“As the virus spreads more widely, breaking the quarantine measures, I have concerns about it entering the homeless population and spreading throughout areas such as community meals and shelters,” she said. “Of concern to our office will be contact with money that is exchanged between staff and vendors [and vendors and customers]. You can't fist bump money.”
At the most recent weekly staff meeting at Portland, OR’s Street Roots, the topic was how vendors can stay healthy while interacting with customers during the panic. Other vendors are being proactive.
“We talked about bringing hand sanitizer with them, and using it each time after handling money,” said Kaia Sand, executive director of Street Roots. “But also, using the hand sanitizer ostentatiously to visually assure customers.”
Sand said there had been no marked difference in sales, but they have been telling vendors that a change in circumstances in the area could mean a dip. They are also working with local partners to ensure the health of vendors. “We are creating health packets for vendors to have and share with other people on the streets. We have been coordinating with a local group of volunteer physicians called ‘Portland Street Medicine’ too. Our effort is to get people accurate information and other supplies (particularly hand sanitizer and soap).
Washington state currently bears the highest number of U.S. confirmed cases and deaths. Streets and buildings are half-empty, and public health officials recommend that the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions stay inside and that people work from home if possible.
“Different vendors are so far having different experiences,” said Seattle street paper Real Change’s founding director Tim Harris. “Some are fortunately unaffected, while others, like those selling in a now empty downtown area are having a tough time.”
Street papers are attempting to come up with creative ways to continue facilitating vendors to earn an income, including selling online versions of their usually printed magazine. The effect of the outbreak for street papers is two-fold: on an organizational and sales level and in terms of protecting vendors.