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WorldWise: Hildegard Denninger, A life in street papers

Fri, Jan 31, 2014

Hildegard Denninger

Photo: REUTERS/Hans Deryk

From being an innkeepers’s daughter to managing one of the world’s most respected street papers, Hildegard Denninger has supported homeless people for more than 20 years through BISS magazine. Based in Munich, Germany, BISS celebrated its 20th anniversary by hosting the 17th annual International Network of Street Papers (INSP) conference this summer. Ahead of her retirement in January 2014, Hildegard spoke to Sandra Maischberger about the magazine’s achievements and devotion to its vendors.

Sandra Maischberger: How did you come to BISS?
Hildegard Denninger: I have to go back a little: More than 25 years ago I worked in businesses that had to do with tax, accounting and hospitality, but not with the homeless. My husband is a social worker and was, until 1988, head of department at the Tea Room, “Come,” a facility for the homeless in Munich. We participated in an exchange with American Christian communities; my husband went as a service manager and I as a translator. In America we have visited many places where you meet poor people. At that time homelessness in Munich and in the rest of Germany was not as obvious as in America. Ronald Reagan on American television said: “There is no poor!” because when he looked out of the window at the White House he saw no poor. Then we came to Washington and went to the White House. And just around the corner were Vietnam veterans on the street. They sat there, some with only one leg, sick in body and soul – terrible! When we came back from America, I was thinking that I’d like to do something so it does not get as bad in Germany as it is in America. That was probably the sticking point. With my husband I then came to BISS – the newspaper had already started.

SM: If you had to explain to someone what BISS is, what would you say?

HD: BISS is a street paper project, which is run by professionals and sold by homeless and formerly homeless people. Selling the magazine gives them social contact and an opportunity to make money. The special feature of BISS is that we also offer permanent jobs for sellers.

To sell BISS you just have to be poor. That’s all. We note at this stage that, for example, more and more poor pensioners come to us who no longer have enough money to live on – a 600 euro pension, from which they also have to pay rent, in Munich. These people either do not want social assistance, or they are just at the limit that they do not qualify for social assistance. BISS is a project that was created at a meeting of the Evangelical Academy of Tutzing in 1991.

SM: Who had the idea?

HD: The idea of the street paper came from John Bird of The Big Issue UK. Dr. Jürgen Micksch, then deputy director of the Evangelical Academy, had read of the English street paper and borrowed the idea. Together with meeting participants from 1991 (subject: “Homelessness – a scandal and its causes”), he developed BISS magazine. In April 1993, Dr. Micksch met for the first time with the homeless, church people and journalists, and on 17.10.1993 BISS first came on the market.

SM: BISS features writing from professionals and vendors?
HD: Exactly. There are two sides in the magazine, with one reserved for the vendors’ writing. But not all vendors want to write. We have often asked at the beginning, “do you want to go into the writing workshop?” and were answered, “I want to earn money, not write.” I could understand that. Sometimes people accuse me of thinking too much of money. But I am a qualified accountant and I want to keep my business going. The newspaper is one thing, and the organization is another.

SM: BISS costs 2.20 euros. Of this, 1.10 euros goes to the vendor. How many papers does a vendor have to sell to have enough money to get by?
HD: The non-tenured vendors do not have to sell any if they don’t want. They sell as much as they can, like, or need. And no matter how much they sell, whether it’s 10 or 100 copies per month, 1.10 per issue, you keep for yourself.

SM: I now put myself in the position of a vendor. I became homeless, I have heard of you and I come to you and say: I want to join as a vendor. Do I have to bring the money required to buy the first 10 magazines?
HD: No. You get the magazines paid for once in your BISS career, namely at the beginning, once you have demonstrated to my husband, who is a social worker and head of sales at BISS, that you are poor. [And you cannot sell BISS anywhere you like.] We have about 100 retailers in Munich: 41 permanent staff, and the rest are free. Each of the permanent employees, who have a sales target, has a stand. These vendors work at certain times in certain places.

SM: What’s wrong with the subway?
In Berlin, street papers are sold in the metro, but not in Munich.
HD: I would have immediately prevented it if it were not forbidden in Munich anyway. I think it’s an act of coercion, if you are sitting there in such a small space and get the newspaper shoved under your nose. You know, we wanted BISS to have strong brand. We must, as a brand and as a journal, have a good reputation, so that the vendor can identify with BISS. The vendors are like the sacred cows in Munich.

SM: In Germany, people fall through the net but do not dare to admit it?
HD: Exactly. But actually, they should have pride. I say this at every vendor meeting: Getting up is it! Everyone is entitled to his life. But then you would have to change the whole mentality in Germany. After trying for 20 years with our sellers, our long-time employees, it has borne fruit. Most are on the streets, selling BISS with self-confidence.

SM: In 1998, you employed the first permanent vendors of BISS. Why?

HD: At that time I made up my mind: after a year I wanted to have BISS jobs for the poorly skilled people with little chance of good jobs, and not just, “If it’s nice weather, I sell a few newspapers” jobs. Many professionals and street paper colleagues had said at that time, “You cannot hire these people.” So I said to myself, ashamed of my colleagues, “They sell your newspaper, while you sit there in the office and have a paid job, and they are outside!” That made me very angry! But it was clear that we had to pay higher salaries, even to the younger ones. We do not have many young boys, mostly men in their mid-40s. So yes, if someone has to work for 20 to 25 years he’s got to have a bit of money for retirement at the end of his time. Since considering this we have been asking people to sponsor vendors. We need sponsors! Rudolph Moshammer [famous German fashion designer] – God bless him – was the first Godfather.

SM: He came from a poor background himself?
HD: Mr Moshammer was the first and only one who has understood our model right away. He found it great! He immediately realized that sustainable assistance is worth more than charity. He then blessed us very well in his will [Rudolph Moshammer was murdered in 2005]. The money managed his club. In the will, he stated – and I was really touched when I read it – “This money is only to be used for payment of salaried BISS vendors, including the employer’s share.” We have also introduced a model for Mr. Moshammer’s money to be used for retirement. When our long-time sellers can no longer meet their targets because they are old and sick, they still continue to get their salary.

SM: How many permanent employees are there?

HD: 41 permanently employed vendors and six staff members: a social worker and sales manager, sales staff, three administrative staff, and a manager.

SM: And the journalists?

HD: The journalists are all freelancers. In the beginning, the authors didn’t receive any money from us. Then, from the second year we paid 50 cents per line. And now we pay about as much as the daily newspapers.

SM: 41 salaried vendors. Have you set a limit?

HD: We said at the beginning that we will definitely stop at 60 employees. This is still a medium-sized company. I’m a fan of mid-sized companies! Now we have a total of 47 employees, It can’t be all just vendors hired as employees because you have to sell at least 400 papers a month. This is hard work. If you have a solid group of people you need a fixed return on the capital side. You can get the one with the papers, but you must get consistency in the amount of donations.

SM: Is it that easy?

HD: It was hard work at first. You have to have partners who agree to provide not just once, but to regularly donate. But I’ve never had to write a letter asking for money. I only write thank you letters. Thanks to our magazine and vendors, the donor can observe what effect their donations have. Just the sponsorships, that’s a lot of money: 5000 € for a sponsorship per vendor. We need 200,000-250,000 Euros every year to pay our vendors salaries. I cannot sleep so well until we have sponsorships. But miraculously, they have so far always been there. We now 41 sponsors – plus additional sponsors. The willingness of people in Munich to engage with the BISS concept is very high.

SM: What about economic migrants such as Romanians and Bulgarians, who are in abundance to Germany? Can they also sell BISS?

HD: A poor man is a poor man. We have no problem with nationalities. But we have a basic rule: people must speak basic German. We will pay, if need be, for intensive courses over a year.

SM: You were diagnosed with cancer for the first time in Christmas 1996?
HD: I never thought that this could happen to me. If I had not had my husband and my best friend . . . who supported me. You have to cry a lot, because you are scared. I had cancer 17 years ago, and then it came back the two years ago. Both times, it was like I got away with a black eye – it was recognized very early, the cancer and there were no metastases.

SM: You told your vendors – why?
HD: I had to tell our vendors – especially our older ones – as I was afraid that I might die. And after we had wept together a bit, we also laughed together.

SM: What happens now after 20 years of BISS?
HD: Now of course I get my pension. Of course I’ll always be with BISS, but not managing.

SM: You will look over the shoulders of the new management?
HD: No, no, no! I do not want to sit next to or behind it.

SM: How do you envision your next 20 years?

HD: I hope that I’m still alive in 20 years. My mother lived to 92. If you need me at BISS, I’m there. And if you do not need me, I’ll find something I can do. The social need is likely to remain even in a rich city like Munich. There will always be poor people.

By Sandra Maischberger
BISS – Germany

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