Big Issue sellers celebrated in the House of Lords for National Vendor Week
Vendors past and present were praised for their resilience in the cost of living crisis at a reception held by Big Issue founder Lord Bird.
by: Adrian Lobb and Alastair Reid
9 Mar 2023
Vendor Clive was among the attendees at the House of Lords River Room. Image: Louise Haywood-Sheifer/Big Issue
Big Issue sellers sheltered from the rain in style this week, joining Big Issue founder Lord Bird and frontline staff at the House of Lords as part of National Vendor Week 2023.
At the reception, hosted by Lord Bird in The River Room – boasting views over the Thames, the London Eye, and a very rainy Westminster Bridge – vendors past and present gathered to share stories of inspiration.
Lord Bird gave a trademark rousing speech of the kind his House of Lords peers are used to witnessing in the second chamber. Bird reaffirmed The Big Issue’s mission to eradicate poverty and help people through the cost of living crisis and how he plans to continue to advocate for people at risk of homelessness.
He was in defiant, celebratory mood – paying tribute to the vendors in attendance and those across the country.
“The Big Issue has a history of 32 years of wonderful people, stood in all sorts of weathers and conditions to help themselves to get out of the grief and move on,” he said. “Thank you for all the hard work you are doing.”
Bird also looked back at The Big Issue’s origins story in 1991.
“There were 501 homeless organisations in London alone who did everything for homeless people, but not one gave them the opportunity and the dignity of making their own money so they could feel in control of their lives,” he said. “We were a hand up not a handout. Not only that, we were a business response to a social crisis.”
And he didn’t refrain from putting the government on notice, demanding a “grown up government” who would address the issues head on rather than the existing approach stuck “in the party political system [which] won’t get us out of this problem”.
Big Issue editor Paul McNamee introduced current and former vendors, including recent cover star Steve Wyatt, who launched a successful furniture restoration business after hanging up his tabard and is now on the verge of opening a new shop with Repair Shop star Jay Blades.
“I met Jay eight years ago before he went on TV,” Steve said. “We kept in contact and I watched his journey as he watched mine.” But that was after a long road battling demons that brought him to The Big Issue’s door.
Selling the magazine was the turning point in a journey that started with adoption and feelings of rejection, through addiction and into being a successful businessman.
“It kept me out of more trouble than I was in and restored my faith in people who showed me kindness and gave me purpose,” he said.
Matt Blackman has a similar story, living a “chaotic lifestyle” of drug addiction and shoplifting. That was until he was begging in Reading in the mid 1990s and someone suggested The Big Issue. Since then it’s been a constant source of support.
“God knows where I’d be without it, quite scary thinking about,” he said.
“Rather than going back to crime, if I’m in trouble my first thought is to go straight to the Big Issue office, buy some magazines, badge up and there you go.”
Vendor Robin Price, who sells the magazine in Weston-Super-Mare and brought his dog Tinks to the event, told how Big Issue frontline staff in Bristol had recently helped save a life.
“My dog had an ulcer before Christmas. I rang up The Big Issue in Bristol and I was getting worried, really frantic. But through the power of the Big Issue, I got hold of an organisation who were able to pay for her treatment. Without her I wouldn’t be here,” he said. But like the others, support wasn’t so readily to hand in times past.
“When I was on the streets here, The Big Issue saved my life.” he said. “Covent Garden wasn’t so nice in the 1990s. I fell into drink and drugs and The Big Issue helped me out of it and since I moved back to Bristol, I’m now doing mentoring, giving other vendors my past experience.”
Also in attendance was Big Issue ambassador Sherrie Silver. The award-winning dancer and choreographer, best known for her work on Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’, spoke about why tackling poverty and inequality is so important to her.
Having grown up in poverty in Rwanda, “fetching water from the well” before moving to the UK, she wanted to make a difference.
“The Big Issue is not handouts,” she said, ”it creates businessmen such as Steve – whose story is so inspirational. Giving someone that kickstart to see you can earn your money [because] the feeling of earning money is not the same as people giving it to you.”
Plymouth vendor and aspiring actor and playwright Clive Rowe said his day out at the House of Lords was emotional. “This is my first visit to London for 14 years,” he said, looking out of the window across the city. “The Shard wasn’t even built last time I was here. I still remember my first ever Big Issue sale, outside HMV in Covent Garden. It changed my life. After I left, I called my dog Geezer, because I didn’t expect to be back.
Clive has recently returned to his pitch outside the Theatre Royal in Plymouth. “It was so great to be back selling before Christmas,” he said. “It’s been interesting – about three quarters of my sales have been contactless.”
These vendors are earning more than ever, as the public continue to get behind them. A 34 per cent year-on-year sales increase was reported in 2022, with vendors earning more than three million pounds in profits on their magazine sales.
As well as a special edition of the magazine, celebrities including Colin Murray, Mel Sykes and James O’Brien participated in a sell-off in central London to raise awareness of Big Issue sellers.
Katy Wright, director of Big Issue Group’s new employment service Big Issue Recruit, explained how the social enterprise wants to make it easier for vendors to transition into long term employment, like Steve.
“We’re doing this because 15 million people are living in poverty and that has been exacerbated by the cost of living crisis,” she said at the event. “But we’re also doing this because there are 1.2 million vacancies in the UK, and 1.2 million people seeking jobs.
“The skills gap and the confidence gap and the ability for people seeking work to fill those vacancies remains.”
Big Issue Recruit provides a work readiness programme for training and confidence building, Wright said, and continues to support candidates when they’re in work, not just for Big Issue vendors but for anyone looking for work and with employers supporting people who may have been out of work long term.
Chris Falchi-Stead, who oversees frontline teams, paid tribute to the nearly 20 vendors who had sadly died in the last year and left attendees with a parting message.
“If you do see a Big Issue vendor, please go and speak to them,” he said. “If you don’t have the money to buy a magazine, it’s absolutely fine. Just say hello and have a chat, they would really really appreciate it. And if you can, please always buy a magazine, please always take it, it’s always an amazing read.”
When most people think about the Big Issue, they think of vendors selling the Big Issue magazines on the streets – and we are immensely proud of this. In 2022 alone, we worked with 10% more vendors and these vendors earned £3.76 million in collective income. There is much more to the work we do at the Big Issue Group, our mission is to create innovative solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunity for the 14million people in the UK living in poverty.