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Big Issue vendor Bex, her dog Rainbow, and an extraordinary act of kindness

Bex Grass was devastated when her dog Poppy died in an accident, but then something incredible happened

A big issue vendor and her black and white dog outside a church

Bex and her dog Rainbow on her pitch in Exeter. Image: © Exposure Photo Agency

Meet Bex Grass and Rainbow the border collie. Together they sell The Big Issue at St Martin’s Church, central Exeter. Their incredible and powerful story speaks of the support that dogs can provide at the toughest times. It also emphasises the extent to which selling The Big Issue can help turn a person’s life around. Selling the paper made them part of a community that rallied around them when help was needed the most, leading to a remarkable act of generosity.

Grass, 43, who’s originally from Sidmouth in Devon, became homeless after a relationship breakdown a couple of years ago. 

“I split from my partner. I was living in his council property,” she explains. 

In the immediate aftermath, Grass had to camp outdoors. Luckily she was not alone. She was joined by her dog Poppy – like Rainbow, a collie – who offered Grass an unexpected lifeline.

Vendor Bex and her black and white dog
Bex and Poppy. Image: Bex Grass

“She was a normal pet dog. But then she really became my support dog as soon as I was homeless, living in a tent. She kept me sane – probably even alive,” says Grass.

As well as dogs, Grass is “very much a horsey person” and, in a way, they helped her through this difficult time, too. “My foster sister happens to be Mary King, a British Olympian,” Grass says. “I was actually staying in her paddock when I was camping. It was away from town.” 

King represented Team GB at six Olympics from Barcelona 1992 to London 2012, winning three medals in eventing. Her late mother Jill fostered 36 children over the years. 

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“I literally had horses as my neighbours, they were the kind I was used to in all fairness,” Grass continues. “Then a youngster entered the field and I was like, ‘Ay-up – you be careful galloping down that field!’ Luckily, there was a great big metal barrier between me and the horses.” 

Grass and Poppy were able to move back indoors after local homelessness charity Gateway Sidmouth referred her to Gabriel House, a hostel in Exeter operated by Bournemouth Churches Housing Association [BCHA], which has been preventing homelessness and rough sleeping in the city for over a decade. 

The pair moved in on 14 February last year. A few months later, thanks to an introduction by Grass’s new partner Mark, who sells The Big Issue on Exeter High Street, Grass too started to sell the magazine. Poppy was there to support her, of course. 

“It took Mark months and months to encourage me to get out onto the High Street due to my anxiety. He encouraged me to get out there by calling me lazy,” she laughs. 

Grass and Poppy became familiar faces selling The Big Issue in Exeter. Mark also has a famous pet, Bear, an American akita who hit the headlines after being dognapped two summers ago. Thankfully Bear was identified and returned to Mark after a kennel worker recognised him from Facebook posts. 

But then, as the four were out for a walk on 29 December, a devastating incident took place. Poppy was hit by a car. Her injuries were so severe she had to be put to sleep. “The car never even stopped,” Grass says. 

“I’ve never felt such grief. Poppy was my protector and had been with me when I was at my lowest points.” 

After losing Poppy, Grass experienced a deep depression. But joy came again from an unlikely place.  

Daniel, Buddy and Pacey Shephard are brothers who busk in Exeter and Sidmouth. Daniel and Buddy on guitar, Pacey on keyboards. Their dad Ben first met Mark at Sidmouth’s Folk Festival. He heard about what had happened to Poppy and when the boys found out, they pooled the busking money they were saving for new instruments to instead buy a new puppy for Grass. 

They identified a farm in Honiton that had a litter. Mark liaised with the family as they organised its essential vaccinations before they all prepared to give Grass the surprise of a lifetime. 

Three boys and a woman carrying a puppy
From left: Pacey, Buddy, Bex with Rainbow and Daniel. Image: BCHA

On 21 March, they brought the fluffy bundle of energy to Gabriel House. Daniel remembers: 

“When our dad came to us and said about a lady losing her dog and that she lives in a hostel and that she can’t afford to get a new one, we asked if we could save up to buy her one. 

“I have never seen anyone so emotional! We could see how much it meant to Bex – a heartwarming moment I will never forget.” 

Pacey adds: “The people called Bex downstairs, and when she saw the puppy I have never seen someone shake so much with happiness. It was amazing to see how much it meant to her.”  

Buddy says: “Bex called her Rainbow, and she is the cutest dog I’ve ever seen. We all felt so happy to be able to help.” 

Grass recalls the day fondly too. “I broke down in tears straight away. Absolutely amazing children. Their parents must be so proud. They just wanted to help. 

“They could see how hard I was struggling to live without Poppy.” 

Four months on, life has been transformed. Rainbow has changed a lot in that time, growing at an incredible rate. 

“At first, she was good as gold on my pitch because she was so tiny. And then she came out of herself.” Rainbow barks at this, as if she knows when people are talking about her. Grass knows she is fortunate to live in accommodation that allows dogs to stay with their owners. 

Big issue vendor and dog
Big Issue Vendor Bex Grass with her dog Rainbow, Exeter. Image: © exposure photo agency

“Normally the rule is as long as you move in with a dog, then you’re allowed your dog. But you’re not allowed to purchase a dog if you don’t have one when you move in. 

“They understood about the fact that I lost Poppy. I’m very lucky.” 

Grass explains why animals are so important to people who have experience of homelessness. She suffers from anxiety, and her canine companions have given her crucial emotional support. 

“They just become your best friend really, and something to focus on.” 

Grass says that the memory of Poppy inspired Rainbow’s name. “There were a few reasons. I sort of wanted to name her after Poppy in a way, but not actually call her Poppy. You know, when dogs pass, they say they go over the rainbow bridge. And the story just has so much hope as well.” 

Now Grass and Rainbow are becoming familiar faces in Exeter. Selling The Big Issue is not always easy. “It’s obviously helped me, but it’s very much still hard work for me due to my anxiety,” Grass says, adding that meeting people who decide to buy magazines, or just say hello, has been good. 

“It’s kind of reminded me that the world is not such a bad place. And that there are definitely good people out there.” 

You can follow Rainbow on Instagram

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

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