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Big Issue seller Michael Costello: 'I’ve been weathering this Covid business'

Michael usually sells The Big Issue in Canary Wharf in London to supplement his pension, so he can carry on looking after wildlife in his spare time. Lockdown has made that harder, he says.

Michael Costello normally sells The Big Issue in Canary Wharf in London. Credit: Travis Hodges

More than 1,000 Big Issue sellers are out of work because of the third lockdown in England. They are unable to sell the magazine and can’t rely on the income they need.

We have been checking in with vendors to find out how they are getting on during this uncertain time. 

This week we hear from Michael Costello, 74, who usually sells the magazine on Canary Wharf in London. Michael talks about his love of looking after animals, his struggles to find work and how he got started selling The Big Issue.

Lockdowns have taken income away from hundreds of Big Issue sellers. Support The Big Issue and our vendors by signing up for a subscription.

When I started off in life I could just walk in to places and get a job. But I found that my employment situation became extremely difficult starting from the Sixties when they set up agencies. After that I only got washing-up jobs, which I’m not very good at. I would have loved to have done scientific research because I have a PhD, and degrees in zoology and psychology. But I always had a poor opinion of myself and it sank further and further, having failed to get a job – partly because I’m just not very good at interviews.

I slept rough in Aberdeen in empty houses for a little while and then I came down to London and was squatting there for many years. One day I was speaking to a fellow squatter after The Big Issue had started up and I told him about my problems with washing up. He said, why don’t you try The Big Issue? I said I wasn’t homeless as my squat was my home, but he told me to go and find out about it anyway. And that was the best bit of advice that I’ve ever received.

I told them my situation and the policy was that I would be classed as ex-homeless and that if I was unable to find other work I could continue selling The Big Issue. From the start, selling the magazine didn’t feel difficult, there were no real mishaps. Once there was a beggar who resented me being there and he knocked me over. Someone came over and bought an issue from me to make up for it. It was a better fit for me than dishwashing and I very much enjoy the contact with people.

Homelessness can happen to anyone. The root of the problem is joblessness – I could probably have done OK doing menial jobs

I’ve been weathering this Covid business. I’ve got a pension now but I still really need to do the pitch so missing it is a pain. I use the extra money from my Big Issue sales to finance some wildlife work I do. I became known as somebody who didn’t ignore injured animals on the street and somehow my name got to an organisation. They used to call on me to clear birds out of lofts for free. I got quite a lot of these calls so it came to be quite burdensome and financially more than I could really afford. The reason I was able to keep going was that, in addition to The Big Issue, I had inherited some money from my mother.

Rescuing animals started when I was in Aberdeen studying. One night I went home late from the pub and I saw a seagull lying in the road unable to fly. I didn’t think I could help it but I put it on a bit of grass in the hope it would die peacefully rather than being run over, but in the morning it was still alive. I looked after it, feeding it fish, until eventually my girlfriend offered to drive me to a sanctuary in Hastings with it. They had a no-put-down policy and ever since then I’ve only dealt with sanctuaries like that.

My motto for treating animals is take it to the expert immediately. Don’t try and learn on the animal because you’ll probably kill it. That was what I did and I used to visit various sanctuaries for all the creatures – pigeons, foxes, badgers – that I helped. I still do this, but I don’t get so many calls and now I’m very physically infirm. But I’m living near a woman who’s really excellent and can treat any animal, so I take them to her.

Very few good things have happened to me in my life, but one of them was meeting my partner. We’ve been together 18 years and she was homeless when I met her. Homelessness can happen to anyone. The root of the problem is joblessness – I could probably have done OK doing menial jobs. Even if I’d become homeless I would have had enough money to lead a decent life without having to beg. The Big Issue has been a saviour for me, that’s beyond doubt. It’s meant an income when I didn’t have one and more importantly the ability to do my wildlife work. I feel deeply grateful to the people I’ve met on my pitch. The kindness and humanity I see selling The Big Issue is a wonderful thing.

Interview: Sarah Reid @frutepastel

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