How the world's homeless population is facing Covid-19

The Big Issue is part of a network of more than 100 street papers in 35 countries. All of them are defiantly fighting for survival to help homeless people through the coronavirus crisis. We asked them to tell us how they are battling on

Global homelessness 1404

As coronavirus continues to spread, we wanted to get a real sense of how the deadly pandemic is affecting people on the streets.

The Big Issue is part of a global movement of more than 100 street papers in 35 countries around the world. So we turned to our network to ask how they were faring in today’s uncertain times and what it meant for the men and women selling their magazines on the streets.

Like The Big Issue, every one of those street papers is facing a battle for survival to carry on helping the homeless and serving the vendors who rely on them for a life-saving income while the streets are empty.

Las Vegas homelessness
In Nevada, homeless people are being 'housed' on a car park six-feet apart (Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty)

It is crucial that they survive to come out the other side too – with many people left jobless as a result of the shutdown to stop the virus’ spread, and a deep global recession likely, street papers will be a safety net and a vital lifeline.

In the face of unprecedented adversity, street papers are harnessing the rebellious, defiant spirit that The Big Issue helped to turn into a global revolution to protect homeless people who are among the most vulnerable to the virus. This is how it’s happening.


Big Issue Japan


Lockdown: No lockdown planned

Number of homeless people at risk: 4,977 (Institute of Global Homelessness)

The Big Issue Japan’s Sayuri Kusama said: “Since the middle of March our offices in Osaka and Tokyo have shortened opening hours and changed the rules.

“We thought we needed to pass packaged food and drink that the vendors can eat outside the office, and NPO Big Issue Foundation asked for a goods donation (conservable food and drink) by Amazon wishlist. Thanks to influencers, we succeeded in that in a few days. We increase visits to pitches to pass them and check their situation. “As for the sales, they are down about 30 per cent for the March 1 issue – it’s the worst in years in Tokyo. In Osaka, we have had the worst sales ever in 16 years. But some vendors are trying to be positive.”

“Another vendor Takuji Yoshitomi in Osaka told us: “I am trying to think this corona situation turns a chance from a pinch. Because there are less people on the street, so this is the chance to stand out on the street. The coronavirus could turn some people into poverty or homelessness like my experience after the 2008 financial crisis.”

Big Issue Korea
Big Issue Korea vendors are being supported with hardship fund following fundraising efforts

South Korea

Lockdown: Never fully locked down

Number of homeless people at risk: 11,340 (IGH)

The response to Covid-19 in South Korea has been hailed as a “model to emulate” by health authorities for the way they have contained the virus. Big Issue Korea’s Byounghun Ahn told us that sales of the street paper had still been badly affected, down 60 per cent in February. In response, the street paper has turned to corporate sponsorships to create a “Big Issue Housing Cost” fund of 200,000 won (£132.50) per month basic income that will run until October alongside government support. Vendors are still selling the magazine but have their temperature checked when they come to the office and are being advised to avoid selling during rush hour. Sellers in the capital Seoul will also receive a basic income of 500,000 won (£331.35) per month brought in for all citizens at the start of March.


Big Issue Australia


Lockdown: March 30

Number of homeless people at risk: 116,427 (IGH)

Like their UK counterparts, The Big Issue Australia are turning to digital editions of the fortnightly magazine and subscriptions to help vendors who were told they could no longer sell on the street from March 27. Offices remain open to support vendors like Damien in Adelaide. The former forklift driver was given short-term temporary accommodation a fortnight ago – following a spell of rough sleeping – after South Australia closed its borders. “I just got a telly,” Damien told The Big Issue Australia. “I’ve settled in and I’m keeping my place clean. I’m following all of those procedures: sanitising, keeping clean… I’m being a little cautious myself, just keeping an update on how it’s going with the spreading and with the news and stuff. It’s all we can do really.” Each state has taken different measures to tide people over, with Victoria, the state where The Big Issue Australia is based in Melbourne, spending $6m (£2.96m) on crisis accommodation.

North America

StreetWise are keeping vendors in the limelight by putting posters on their pitches


Lockdown: March 20

Number of homeless people at risk: 554,000 (IGH)

Street papers have been inventive in ensuring that vendors are part of the process even when they cannot sell the magazine. StreetWise, in Chicago, and Canada’s Megaphone, in Vancouver and Victoria, have put up posters of vendors at their usual pitch to ensure they remain in mind throughout the crisis. Quiver Watts, editor of San Francisco’s Street Sheet, is drawing attention to law enforcement’s sweeps of homeless encampments as the city deals with the coronavirus-triggered state of emergency. Watts rallied against “sweeps that deprive already vulnerable people of essential medications, survival gear, and stability needed to minimise risk” in a piece penned for the International Network of Street Papers. San Francisco authorities are in the process, like the UK, of moving homeless people from the streets into hotel rooms to protect them from the virus, with Mayor London Breed promising to make 3,000 rooms available on March 27. Street Sheet has postponed its April 1 issue and is instead pleading with supporters to donate to their Emergency Vendor Support Fund to help vendors instead.

Mi Valedor


No full lockdown yet

Number of homeless people at risk: 15,000-30,000 (NGO estimate)

Mexico City street paper Mi Valedor announced its intention to carry out the magazine’s activities remotely on March 29. From there staff began offering vendors up to 20 copies of the magazine each for free to counteract lower sales while they are still able to sell on the street. Like other street papers, it too is focusing on subscriptions and donations to keep Mi Valedor going and able to support vendors. They said in a statement: “Our vision of a more egalitarian future is being affected by a worldwide pandemic. Now, more than ever, we have to respond by finding collective solutions that are brave and compassionate, taking care of one another and especially of the most vulnerable among us.”

South America

Hecho en Buenos Aires


Lockdown: March 21

Number of homeless people at risk: No national figure, estimated to be around 8,000 in Buenos Aires

Hecho en Buenos Aires director Patricia Merkin said: “Here the homeless community is not protected as it should be. Our street paper is hardly coping with this crisis. We had to close our office for the first time in 20 years, circulation is prohibited since the government extended the isolation for three weeks more. In the meantime we have received food donations for our vendors as with no people on the streets, to whom are we going to sell the paper? And we registered our vendors for an extraordinary bonus the government is offering to non-qualified workers while we organise an online system to sell the mag and distribute the income.”


Scarp de' tenis


Date of lockdown: March 9

Number of homeless people at risk: 48,000 (IGH)

Italy has been the country hardest hit by coronavirus, overtaking China’s death toll on March 19.

Milan-based street paper Scarp de’ tenis, with around 150 vendors, is based in the Lombardy region where the outbreak has been most fierce. Editor Stefano Lampertico said: “Caritas network and other voluntary organisations have never stopped providing primary aid to those in need. In some cities, police have fined several homeless people for breaching the government order to stay indoors. The absurd is happening as they have nowhere to go, but they cannot stay in public places. Night shelters are full. The Enzo Jannacci Shelter home, the oldest and largest public shelter in Europe owned by the municipality of Milan, hosts over 500 people every night. There is a lot of concern, not only for poor and marginalised people but also for families who are beginning to suffer from lack of work and loss in income. We do not see the light at the end of the tunnel. The Italian government is considering extending its lockdown measures for further weeks.”

bodo Germany


Date of lockdown: March 22

Number of homeless people at risk: 430,000 (IGH)

Bastian Pütter, editor-in-chief of Dortmund-based street paper bodo, said: “On Sunday March 22 the German government has decided on a so-called contact ban. Staying outside is subject to strict rules, most shops except supermarkets and pharmacies are closed. In some cities, spontaneous new help services such as neighbourhood soup kitchens have emerged. But homeless people are practically not tested. Due to the closure of the entire infrastructure, the hygienic situation in particular is difficult. In addition, the sellers of street newspapers have lost all their income. Some street magazines, including us, help with shopping vouchers for supermarkets. There will be no relaxation of the measures until at least April 20. With our networks we are trying to maintain the aid structures and to guarantee the supply of the homeless. We will see whether we can sell again after the end of the lockdown.”

Surprise Switzerland


Lockdown: March 17

Number of homeless people at risk: 3,000-8,000 (IGH)

Surprise editor Sara Winter told The Big Issue that the Swiss street paper went into lockdown on March 16. For now, the current magazine is available for free online as Surprise looks to up fundraising to cover 150,000 Swiss francs (£125,511) per month losses. The fundraising is allowing Surprise to give vendors an advance to pay their own bills while the focus is also on keeping counselling and support services for vendors going in Basel, Bern and Zurich. Winter said: “Many of the approximately 450 vendors and 14 tour guides are affected by poverty and depend on the sale of the street magazine and the guided tours for their survival. It is very important to us that we can currently support our sellers in this difficult time – also with advice. Selling Surprise is much more than just a source of income for our sellers.”


Not locked down yet

Number of homeless people at risk: 34,000 (IGH)

Sarah Britz, Faktum editor, said: “Are the Swedes stupid – or are we doing the right thing? This issue is now discussed in Sweden, the country that broke the pattern of how to deal with the corona-crisis in the world.

“Sweden is not closed down. People are allowed to move freely in the streets – but keep social distance. For the street paper Faktum, publishing is in southern Sweden, this means that the vendors sell and that our four offices still are open. For how long, however, do we not know at the time of writing. The fear of the infection has led to a drastic drop in sales for the vendors and affects our economy hard.

We have raised money from readers. With them we buy Faktum and give them back to the vendors and they buy a copy of Faktum and get one for free. In this way, they increase their income. The vendors are grateful that we can still be open and that we will publish next month as well. However, with a much thinner issue because all the staff work fewer hours. But we are still running – only time will tell how long.”

Hus Forbi
Denmark's Hus Forbi has even turned up in national coronavirus updates as the street paper works to support vendors


Lockdown: March 11

Number of homeless people at risk: 6,138 (IGH)

Hus Forbi has taken a novel approach to reaching new audiences by signing a deal with three national Danish newspapers to carry a special edition of the street paper in April. And social affairs minister Astrid Krag told the nation in a press conference that it was safe to buy Hus Forbi. Editor Poul Struve Neilsen, who was self-isolating last week after suffering symptoms, told The Big Issue that his team will be doubling their workload to get the special edition magazine out after they lost a third of sales. He said: “We saw that we will not reach as many people with our message as we usually do so we will send the edition out nationwide to their subscribers at Easter with their daily papers. We hope that it will allow us to stay in the public eye and be visible at a time when we do not have as many vendors out there. Hus Forbi is still being sold by vendors who have no other option, while the street paper has signed a deal with a chain of youth hostels to house rough sleepers and signed an agreement with a food firm who are doubling up the 75 kroner (£8.89) food vouchers that vendors are being given.

If you would like to support The Big Issue or other street papers around the world, INSP have gathered all the details in one handy spot. Head here

This article originally appeared in this week’s Big issue magazine 1405. To subscribe to get the magazine straight to your device or front door, head to

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