Homelessness still the Big Issue

When Gordon Roddick was in New York in 1991 he picked up a copy of ‘Street News,’ a newspaper sold on street corners by the people who lived on the street. Upon his return to London, and seeing an increasing number of homeless people, he enlisted the help of A. John Bird. Bird was made homeless at the age of five, grew up in orphanages and slept rough or in prison till his late twenties, so therefore knew first hand its devastating effects. Together they felt inspired to make a difference and to achieve the change he wanted to see in society themselves. This may sound like an urban fairytale. Roddick and Bird, however, were made of sterner metal and together they created The Big Issue.

Everyone has seen Big Issue sellers on street corners. In some parts of London it is impossible to walk across two streets without meeting at least one and there are 2,900 registered sellers. Although the charity is now an assumed part of modern life, they have actually made a revolutionary difference in the public’s image of homeless people and offered many an opportunity to change their lives that would never have been possible before. The Big Issue consists of a limited company which issues and distributes the magazine, and a charity which helps vendors address the problems in their lives that may have helped to contribute to their homelessness.

The key strength of The Big Issue is that it offers vendors a sense of self-respect and control over their lives. Speaking to Mike outside Waterloo tube station before Christmas this was plainly clear. Having paid £2.00 for the Christmas special, I asked him how trade was going on that rainy, cold evening. He said that it was quite slow, but then who could blame them when head office put the price up this year. He lamented the lack of a union within the vendors, how it was impossible to organise people without addresses or phones and how the charity would never take them seriously. It is a sure sign that a person is regaining confidence in himself and his future if he can grumble gently about his boss, even when his boss is there to improve his way of life.

The vendors also occupy an interesting position within the society of a town or community. In Marlow, the postcard-sweet riverside town that contained my school in Buckinghamshire, there is a young Big Issue vendor who has been there for years. He goes for free coffees in Starbucks, occasionally buys alcohol for underage kids and is generally an accepted feature of the High Street. In this town where there are more hairdressers than newsagents, it is refreshing to see bouffanted ladies in 4x4s chatting with a homeless boy from the Middle East.

The Big Issue offers homeless people this stamp of respectability that allows them to communicate without the fear usually associated with those who live on the streets. The increasing number of Big Issue vendors who are obviously not of white British origin, like our friend from Marlow, is jeopardising the public’s willingness to buy copies of the magazine. Increasingly the vendors are immigrants having sought refugee status in the UK and unfortunately people appear to be discouraged by what is seen as the changing image of the company.

The Big Issue is an example of an extremely successful charitable organisation that has managed to combine business smarts with a real understanding of the problems faced by those it helps. They appear to survive the worst hits of the recession, so crippling to other charities, without too much trouble. I only hope that they can continue to prosper and improve both the lives of homeless people and our expectations of them.


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