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Why beggars are a problem for Vienna's street paper

The Local · 18 Aug 2014, 16:43

Published: 18 Aug 2014 16:43 GMT+02:00

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Augustin is the fortnightly newspaper published on behalf of and sold by Vienna’s homeless or long-term unemployed. It was inspired by New York’s Street News and London’s The Big Issue, and helps people with no job and no prospects earn a legitimate income.

They earn €1.25 for every paper they sell, half of the cover price. There are 450 active sellers in Vienna, selling between 27,000 and 30,000 copies every fortnight.

However Augustin has been struggling with falling sales - due in part to the competition from the free tabloid newspapers given out at train stations and also by an increase in beggars from Eastern Europe who pretend to be registered Augustin sellers and hassle people to give them money.

Robert Sommer, co-founder and editor of Augustin, told The Local that many people have lost faith in the Augustin brand and no longer trust the registered vendors.

In 2007, Augustin sold 35,000 copies per fortnight - but since then that number has been steadily dropping.  

“Everybody who wants to sell Augustin gets proper training, and one of the most important things they learn is to take ‘No’ for an answer. If someone doesn’t want to buy the magazine, don’t pester them - but increasingly this is what the beggars across Vienna are doing,” Sommer says.

Sommer has sympathy for the beggars - many of them have been living in abject poverty and see Vienna as a place to make money - but he says it is not up to him to solve Austria’s begging problem, that is something the government and social organisations must work on.

“These are the so-called poverty commuters - they come to Vienna because it’s not far and it’s viewed as wealthy… but we aren’t the police,” he says.

He estimates that there are hundreds of unofficial vendors in Vienna.

Augustin already has a full roster of authorised vendors and currently can’t take on any more. The competition for the best pitches from which to sell the paper has become so fierce that if there are too many people, they can’t make enough money.

Initially when Augustin was launched only Austrians sold it. The magazine was very much identified with Vienna and the vendors were known and loved for their so-called Wiener Schmäh (a typical Viennese charm and humour).

This short Viennese film features a charming Augustin vendor who offers wise advice.  Courtesy: Shoshana Rae Stark

However as the number of African refugees coming to Vienna increased they also began selling Augustin, out of necessity.

Refugee centres were under so much pressure that they started sending people to the Augustin office. And this was something many Austrians were annoyed about as they considered it was a job for ‘Austria’s poor’.

Gradually though, Sommer says that African vendors became integrated, particularly when Augustin started a football team and the African players proved to be some of the most skilful.

Now, the African vendors are some of the most successful and some of them make up to €70 a day.

“Because of the asylum process they aren’t allowed to do any other work, and so they really try hard to be friendly and have some banter with commuters.

Now they, in turn, dislike the Roma people who have started selling the paper - even the registered ones - as they think they are ruining business for them,” he says.

Augustin is independently financed, and employs 13 people full time. However, as the paper’s circulation dropped to 25,000 the team realised they wouldn’t be able to keep going if they didn’t raise some money.

They launched a campaign requesting that people who really loved the paper and didn’t want to see it die could pledge to donate €25 per month - and received double the amount of pledges that they needed.

They now have 333 Augustin ‘lovers’ who donate monthly, and 300 more waiting the join the list if need be.

Story continues below…

Robert Sommer. Photo: Augustin

Editorially, Augustin is in favour of freedom, and is critical of bans on begging, or street performers.

It aims to represent those who are not the mainstream and is critical of the “absurd rules” which forbid people sleeping rough in Vienna’s parks.

“A homeless person can be fined for sleeping rough in a sleeping bag - but not if he or she was sleeping just covered by a coat. The law, and the police are so cynical. But it’s a reality in big cities that poor people will be the downtrodden ones,” Sommer says.

He adds that there is a law relating to usage of the streets (Strassenverkehrsordnung) which police often use against homeless people. It's forbidden to loiter on the street for no reason, and for doing that you can be fined €70. 

"Of course, a homeless person can't pay this so they get to spend two nights in Rossauer Lände prison, which everyone jokes is just full of poor people and not criminals - and every prisoner is costing the state between €150 and €200 a day, it's absurd!"

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