Big Issue Vendor

Our year of change: Being a Big Issue vendor during the Covid-19 crisis

One year on, we take a look at how coronavirus has affected our vendors – and how we responded
Martin McKenzie, London

March 23, 2020. PM Boris Johnson delivered the news the country expected but still struggled to believe – the UK was going into lockdown in response to what he called “the biggest threat this country has faced for decades”.

At The Big Issue, we had already acted. A few days earlier, the organisation had removed all Big Issue vendors – more than 1,000 of them – from Britain’s streets with immediate effect.

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There was no other option. It was the only way we could mitigate the health threat they faced. As our founder Lord Bird said at the time: “Our sellers, many of whom are homeless or rough sleeping, are already highly vulnerable and it is only right that we make this difficult decision to protect their welfare.”

But the result was a devastating blow to the incomes of the men and women who make their living through sales of the magazine, not to mention losing the social and psychological benefits their jobs brought them.

We moved to subscriptions, digital and supermarket sales, and fundraisers. We kept the revenues coming in to support Big Issue vendors while they couldn’t sell The Big Issue on their pitches

It was also incredibly tough on The Big Issue as a business. We had to find ways, quickly, of keeping the enterprise afloat without our iconic salesmen and women on their pitches.

We moved to subscriptions, digital and supermarket sales, and fundraisers. We kept the revenues coming in to support Big Issue vendors while they couldn’t sell The Big Issue on their pitches.

And last month we hit a remarkable milestone – £1m given out to vendors in crisis.

Swansea seller John Williams faced the dual challenge of coping with lockdown while living on a dwindling income.

Vendor John Williams
John Williams
John Williams, Swansea

“Lockdown was a struggle for me,” he said. “The only time I went out was when I had to get food, but even that was hard sometimes. I’d lost my income and I didn’t have the money to pay for it.”

As well as food vouchers, The Big Issue tries to help with personal items that make lockdown more bearable for vendors. For John, that meant a laptop.

“My girlfriend’s in the Philippines. I was using my phone all the time to call her but it makes a difference to see her on the bigger screen now,” he said.

“When I was off the streets during lockdown The Big Issue used to contact me to make sure I was OK. And I called them a couple of times when I was struggling, just because I wanted to hear a friendly voice.”

By the time of the second lockdown, London vendor Martin McKenzie [pictured]  knew that it would pay to be prepared. “I anticipated this could happen,” he said at the time. “I’ve stocked up on some long-life stuff. But it’s soul-crushing, I like being out mingling with people.”

And Simone Gill in Plymouth agreed that it left her, as a disabled woman, isolated. “Lockdown was hard going, to tell you the truth,” she said. “It wasn’t very nice. I missed selling the magazine and I was so grateful for The Big Issue support every two weeks. That helped a lot.”

Vendor Simone Gill
Vendor Simone Gill
Simone Gill, Plymouth

The unfailing kindness of Big Issue readers has shone through over the past 12 months, and no one feels this more than the Big Issue vendors. King’s Lynn vendor Cornell Toman put that into words when he said: “Through lockdown some of the locals and my regulars got in touch with The Big Issue and asked if they could ring me. They sent me some money to help me out. It made me feel wanted, part of the community.”

Big Issue vendor Cornell Toman
Vendor Cornell Toman
Cornell Toman, King's Lynn