Helping the homeless in Budapest
You must have seen them around the streets and metro stations of Budapest – vendors of the city’s magazine to help the homeless, “Fedél Nélkül”. Behind the FN logo is a well conceived product that has survived many slings and arrows over 25 years. We look at the newspaper’s history, sit in on an editorial meeting and see what the publication means to its many vendors.
New York had Street News, London has its Big Issue, Budapest… Fedél Nélkül. ‘Without a Roof’ came about with the change of régime in 1989, and the sudden loss of jobs, working shelters and the 200,000 beds they contained. That’s how Tibor Ungi ended up founding the newspaper in 1993, one that he ran until his death five years later.
Back in the day, the pages were photocopied at the Menhely Foundation for the homeless, who then snipped the pages themselves with scissors. The aim then was the same at it is now: to give the homeless a voice and get them working.
The newspaper first became a professionally printed edition in 2000, filled with colour, poems, short stories, interviews with famous people, crosswords and classified ads. It even once ran a horoscope, the irony presumably not lost on the editorial team.
Each copy is bought by a vendor for 45 forints. The idea is not a Hungarian one, of course, but editor-in-chief Róbert Kepe is at pains to point out that homeless people are not involved at this kind of level for street newspapers anywhere else in the world.
“A normal street newspaper in the West looks like a glossy women’s magazine here,” he says. “The Big Issue, for example, is among the top ten brands in the UK. There are lots of sales, social workers and journalists write for it, and the only reason to call it a street magazine is because homeless people go out and sell it.”
Compared to the London publication, Budapest’s is much thinner: just 12 pages, that’s all the material allows for. The Menhely Foundation provides an editorial office in a warm living room on Kürt utca, at the gateway to the party zone of Király utca. Two editorial staff are permanent and four co-workers deal with distribution and logistics. As well as staff writers, volunteers contribute.
The monthly editorial meeting does not differ much from the ones at We Love Budapest: names of potential interviewees fly around the room. A well known Hungarian personality usually graces the cover – writer György Spiró, actor in Oscar-winning Son of Saul Géza Röhrig, chat-show host Sándor Fábry – but this is one publication where the front page doesn’t make or break a sale.
Most content, partly arriving by email, partly on dog-eared notepaper, is rewarded with a couple of thousand forints. Róbert reckons there is such outstanding talent among homeless creatives, they should belong to the Hungarian contemporary elite, not be living on a street corner.
Fedél Nélkül shifts an average of 8-10,000 copies a month, but the odd article can bump up sales, such as when it famously published the first chapter of a new Harry Potter book. One or two more such coups would certainly help matters, but the standard 45-forint rate to vendors wouldn’t change.
There are one or two paid ads a year, though these advertisers approach the magazine, not the other way round.
The magazine appears fortnightly on Thursdays, when there’s always a buzz on Kürt utca. In any given year, some 300-400 vendors pass through the office, which has a total of 2,400 registrations. Some people disappear for a long time and then return. Those who are sure to come every two weeks number about 150 people, half of whom sell the page daily.
Customers pay as much as they think they should, usually an average of 200-500 forints, but miracles do happen – one of the vendors we spoke to once received a 20,000-forint note. Distributors are extremely diverse: we met a 75-year-old Gypsy lady who couldn’t read and write, and we met a former lawyer.
The amount raised from a single newspaper sale can make a huge difference. It helps the worst-performing vendors get through the day and those who look on it as a job know that they have to get up early and deal with things, divide up their day and engage with people. After all, communication is everything.
For more on Fedél Nélkül, see here.