The Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating for Big Issue sellers. The organisation, magazine, website — everything — exists to support people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, are long-term unemployed, or are in need of extra cash to avoid falling into debt. In these unpredictable times, we provide an opportunity for people to earn their own income.
The Big Issue seller on your local high street isn’t earning an hourly wage while they’re standing out there in all weathers.They’re running their own micro-business. They have outgoings and have to turn a profit just like any other enterprise out there.
And again, just like any other workplace, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Vendors buy their magazines from The Big Issue for £1.50 each and sell them to their customers for £3 a time.
This Christmas, the magazine is packed with 25 per cent more pages and the cover price has gone up to £4, but the sellers don’t pay any more for it — it’s still £1.50 from our distribution offices across the country.
The coronavirus and ensuing lockdowns have changed the reality for our vendors. Where normally Big Issue sellers would be waiting to greet their customers with a laugh and a smile, hundreds have been unable to go to work.
We’ve done everything we can to support them. For the first time, readers can now buy a subscription to make sure their support is ongoing.
We’re helping hundreds of sellers set up bank accounts and bridge the digital divide, so that readers can subscribe directly to their local vendor if they are unable to go see them in person. Sellers still get 50 per cent of the net proceeds from subscriptions, just like buying it in person, and readers can find their local vendor and subscribe directly on the Big Issue vendor map.
Anthony Okuyedi, 60, sells the Big Issue outside South Kensington station in London. He said the map and subscription model was good news both to help him through the immediate crisis and to boost his longer-term income.
“I think it is a very good idea to let customers subscribe to help individual vendors, I know I have been having conversations with my customers about it,” he said when the map went live in November. “And it’s not just helpful in lockdown, because sometimes we get customers that leave the area or change jobs and we lose those customers along the way.
Vendor Billy Lawrence, who sells the magazine in Dundee, is solely supported by his Big Issue earnings. After two years on the streets he now has a flat.
He says: “I’m running my house day by day with my Big Issue money. I’ll work out what I’m going to need for the day and after the priorities like electricity I’ll see what I have left and if I’m short I might need to cut back on some things.
“Back when I first started selling I was given five magazines for free to get me up and running. I quickly got into the mindset of turning one into two and two into four. But it’s very seldom that I buy just one magazine. Most days I go to buy magazines three or four times a day. But you don’t get two days the same.”
After a chaotic life a few years ago, the discipline from being self-employed has also helped Billy to manage his cash carefully.
“I don’t really treat myself if I have any extra because when I have bad days I’ll still have that money to fall back on as a safety net,” he says. “Christmas is always out of this world for sales – funny money – so that helps me out during the whole of January.”
Billy’s pitch is outside a Tesco store and he says staff and customers sometimes show their appreciation with coffees and a bite to eat.
“Some of the staff come out to give me leftovers from their hotplate,” he says. “They know I help their customers with their bags, if they’re going for a taxi or something, so they like to look out for me in return.”
So maybe there is such a thing as a free lunch. But that doesn’t take away from the hard yards your vendor is putting in every day to earn their way out of poverty.