One thousand ways of helping the homeless to help themselves
The Big Issue magazine has been presented to the world 1,000 times. That is a lot of newsprint, and a lot of sales, and a lot of editorial. And a lot of homeless people coming and going, sometimes well advantaged, and sometimes not.
I was pleased to be accosted the other night by a former Big Issue vendor who said: “John Bird, you’ve heard this a thousand times.” (I hadn’t, but thought, ‘Carry on’.) “You saved my life with The Big Issue. You got me out of grief. You got me stable. I’m now recovering. Thank you.”
The wet kiss was genuine and I think we were equally moved by this little tableau. This, I thought, was why we started. But it nearly never got beyond issue 11 – our first anniversary issue, back when we were a monthly.
Mr Gordon Roddick of The Body Shop, our co-founder and sponsor, and husband of Anita, said to me in a pub one night: “I’ll finance you for another three months. You’re losing money hand over fist. You’re helping a lot of homeless people but you’re unsustainable, you stupid arse.” And other words to that effect.
I went back to London from the country pub with Gordon’s declaration of support ringing in my ears. Three months didn’t seem long enough. But for our first birthday three months later we made a small surplus. And since then we have received no money from anyone.
Hence the ongoing issues and the spread throughout the world; the creation of the International Network of Street Papers and the creation of Big Issue Invest, which invests in socially useful businesses throughout the UK; and the thousands of homeless people who have come and gone, using The Big Issue as a stepping stone or, at times, a shoulder to cry on.
The night after I was being pleasantly accosted by a grateful vendor when I was in Inverness. And being mildly scolded for the high price of the paper. “Folk hav’na the money, Mr Bird. It’s a struggle at £2.50.” I listened to the man’s plight, which was that he needed to get off the streets. And I told him that we were pushing up the value of the paper to the reader/supporter, that hopefully this would influence his sales in the future.
But there remained the help he needed, not just from The Big Issue, but other agencies. Help for his habit problems, which he freely talked about. Looking at all of the man’s problems, the stiff price of The Big Issue was one among a number.
Nearly 21 years after launch and attaining 1,000 issues is reason for celebration, but not entirely. We still have to find better ways of working with people so they get off the street. We still need to address the problem of how we push up the value of our product so that the public dive on to the Big Issue vendor, thirsty for the next issue. And we still have to invent new means of ‘helping the homeless to help themselves’.
Twenty-one years ago there were no Romanians selling The Big Issue. Now we work with a sizable group of people from Eastern Europe. That has thrown up problems for us because some question our take on Romanians.
The Big Issue was started to help decriminalise people; so to feed and tend to themselves, and at times to feed their habits, they didn’t get involved in crime. This sticks in the throat of many.
We work with Romanians because if we don’t their children don’t go to school, and the chance of them getting into trouble increases. Poverty throws up crime and we have to address that, even if it upsets us to admit it.
In 2022 we will have attained our 2,000th issue. I hope we sort out many of the conundrums by then. In the meantime let’s get on with becoming more useful to the homeless and more necessary to our readers/supporters.
Thank you for making this 1000th issue not just an ambition from Gordon Roddick, me and others, but a reality. ‘Helping the homeless to help themselves’ is still our guiding light. I know it is yours.
John Bird is the Founder of The Big Issue. If you have any comments please email John at: firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him: @johnbirdswords