James Bowen and other ex-vendors: How The Big Issue offered us a hand up

From James Bowen with Street Cat Bob to chefs, illustrators and even a Harley Street therapist, Big Issue vendors go on to great things

James Bowen and Street Cat Bob are a paw-some example of how The Big Issue helps people. Now the most recognisable literary double act in the world, they are among those who found a lifeline selling the magazine. Their bestselling books, now also transformed into a big-screen version that will hit cinemas this Christmas, have been snapped up by millions of readers around the globe, catapulting them to fame and fortune.

But while James’ story is unique, it is also – like those of the other vendors and former vendors featured here– a testament to the confidence, structure and support that selling The Big Issue can give to people when they need it most.

Starting in 2008, James sold the magazine outside Angel Tube station in London’s Islington, with Bob by his side high-fiving passers-by. He says the magazine “helped us to survive on the streets for so many years”, and also helped him to connect with people.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for The Big Issue,” James says. “Getting up and going out to sell the magazine used to be my daily routine not so long ago. I couldn’t believe how many people had never actually realised Big Issue vendors have to buy magazines first and micromanage their own money and all of that stuff.”

James’ books have made a huge difference in explaining to people the realities of rough sleeping, homelessness, addiction – and the effort that is required to overcome those challenges and get life back on track.

We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for The Big Issue

“It’s amazing that just from having this little man Bob on my shoulders so many eyes have been opened,” James admits. “For every individual that turns a blind eye, there is someone caring – like people reading The Big Issue right now – and supporting a great cause.

“I still think I’m going to wake up one day and this will all have been a dream,” he adds. “A lot has changed since then but my time on the streets will always be a part of me. I don’t know what we did to deserve this but for some reason the universe has thrown us a bone.”

“I became confident meeting people and now I’m a tour guide”

Viv Askeland

Norwegian-born Viv was sleeping rough under London Bridge and begging before she came to The Big Issue. She sold the magazine until 2010, when she found a new role as an alternative London tour guide. Part of the award-winning Sock Mob’s ‘Unseen Tours’ team, Viv takes tourists on a journey through the secret history of Covent Garden.

“When I started selling the magazine at Blackfriars I did really well at it and it began to give me a lot of confidence speaking to people,” says Viv. “I remember realising how much I actually liked speaking to customers and meeting new people, and that was great. And, of course, that’s what I’ve moved on to doing with the tours.”

“I campaign for better gambling regulation”

When Owen began selling The Big Issue in Canterbury back in 2006, he had been struggling with a gambling addiction, in particular digital roulette games called Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) in high street bookmakers.

Since The Big Issue helped turn his life around, Owen has been campaigning for better regulation of FOBTs and runs seminars for charities helping combat gambling addiction.

Selling The Big Issue gave me some structure, a plan for the day

“Selling The Big Issue gave me some stability back,” he recalls. “I remember how it gave me some structure, a plan for the day. When I realised I was enjoying the chance to run my own little business – that was the moment things began to change for the better for me. I’m grateful because it sowed the seeds that paid off later.”

“The Big Issue helped me become a Harley Street therapist”

Mark Dempster is now a successful Harley Street counsellor

Once former addict, drug dealer and prisoner Mark Dempster turned his life around with The Big Issue’s help, he went on to become a qualified therapist. He now treats patients at his Harley Street practice, and hails his time selling the magazine between 1993 and 1996 as the catalyst to his recovery.

“It was all the positive interactions with people that made me feel I was integrating back into society,” he recalls. “It felt empowering to generate my own money without having to steal, so it gave me the platform to put drugs and crime behind me.

“I remember one day in The Big Issue office, a pal of mine called Paul, another vendor, came in and said he was going through a detox programme. I remember thinking, yes – I can do it too. It was an important turning point, and The Big Issue was a big part of that.”

“My art was spotted at my pitch – now I’m a children’s books illustrator”

Jon sold the magazine in Bath up until the end of 2015, when he finished work on a series of drawings for a children’s book called Katy and the Rainbow Mermaid.

Jon had painted a colourful dragon on the window of Waterstones where he sold The Big Issue, which caught the eye of author John West who offered him work on his next book. The writer-illustrator team are now working on a follow-up: Katy and the Knights of the Hound Table. “The biggest thing is confidence,” says Jon. “It got me talking to people, gave me the push to talk to them about my work.”

“It helps me enjoy the bright side of life”

Jo Adamson

 When selling The Big Issue outside Central Station, she was known in Glasgow as “the singing vendor” for cheering everyone up on her pitch. Registered blind, Jo recently stopped selling the magazine because of her deteriorating sight but has revelled in a hidden creative talent: painting.

Last month she exhibited her paintings at CASS Art. She’s also set up her own Etsy store called Jo Sunshine Art to sell her work. “I don’t do depressing pictures – I do cheerful ones,” she says. “Since I left The Big Issue I didn’t think I could draw any more because I’m almost blind. I’m proud of what I’ve done.”

“My customers opened doors to the arts”

Kevin, who sells the magazine in Hackney Wick, keeps busy organising arts events, including arranging DJs and bands he has met on his pitch to perform at a food donation drive for homeless people at a local cafe. “Because I sell the magazine in one of Europe’s biggest arts areas, I’ve got to know quite a lot of creative people,” he explains. “When I realised The Big Issue could help lead on to other opportunities, that was a big breakthrough.”

“I turned my business skills to catering”

Iain Duff

Ian Duff, chef extraordinaire, combines selling The Big Issue in Bath with running a growing catering business. Duff Cooks, a social enterprise, has taken on other vendors to help with the cooking and waiting roles.

Not only are we making an honest living, we are all trying to move on from homelessness

Ian says selling the magazine helped “make this all possible” and he now gives talks to colleges and businesses explaining the entrepreneurial aspect of The Big Issue. “People are amazed: not only are we making an honest living, we are all trying to move on from homelessness.”

“I became a legal eagle”

Seven years ago Joel was sleeping rough in London. Today he works for top City law firm Freshfields. He says the turning point was when he walked through the doors of The Big Issue in 2009.

“I remember the first day selling was nerve-wracking. I’d been out there for an hour and hadn’t sold anything but when the first person bought a magazine and started talking to me, I felt comfortable. It felt like someone was on my side for the first time in a while.”

After a corporate placement at Freshfields, he got a job in the billing department. Sports-mad Joel then became the company’s football coach and was even asked to try out for the Belize team heading to Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games in 2014 (Joel was born in Belize).

“The Big Issue and The Big Issue Foundation turned my life around massively,” he reflects. “The good thing is they give vendors the tools to help themselves.”

“I’m a digital pioneer”

Simon Mott

Simon became Britain’s first Big Issue vendor to adopt cashless technology when he invested £49 in a card reader so he could boost his sales. He recently upgraded to the latest version of iZettle’s contactless payment reader that allows people to pay for their Big Issue through Apple Pay.

“I struggled selling the magazine at first but keeping up with the technology gave me a real boost,” says Simon. “It is important to me to treat it like a business and take it seriously.”


The Big Issue has put its stamp on the streets again – this time with a groundbreaking coffee chain

Change Please coffee cup

“I used to think coffee was just pouring some water on to the Nescafé,” laughs Jatinder Budwal. Now, for the ex-homeless barista, the art of crafting cappuccinos is about far more than the great British public’s itch for a caffeine fix.

Jatinder, 34, is the most recent employee to join pioneering social enterprise Change Please. The venture – backed by The Big Issue through early support from Big Issue Invest – has seen homeless people trained to sell speciality brews from mobile carts across London. Since November, Change Please has sold more than 78,000 cups of coffee, expanded from one to five sites and employed 12 formerly homeless people as baristas. Of those, four have gone on to other employment.

All baristas are paid the London living wage of £9.15 an hour and receive housing support.

Change Please is the brainchild of Cemal Ezel, who also co-founded the Old Spike Roastery, a coffee shop that employs local homeless people in Peckham Rye.

“We were interested in supporting the onward journey The Big Issue already provides by creating new opportunities for the vendors,” he says. “We’ve been looking for people ready to make the most of this kind of training.”

With mobile coffee vans already in place in Covent Garden, Borough and, among others, Kennington, Change Please launched its eighth cart last month, staffed by Jatinder – who you might recognise from the BBC mini-series Famous, Rich and Homeless – in Canary Wharf.

Jatinder adds: “Before this, I was sleeping in a stairwell. It wasn’t easy. It was cold and scary. After a few days’ training I started working full time at the start of this year. I was able to save up my wages and find a room to rent. It makes me smile every time I jump in the shower or use the toaster or open the fridge. This job has made it all possible.”

Pascal Pompet, 44, is one of four former Big Issue vendors employed as a barista. Pascal came to London 15 years ago but found himself sleeping rough.

I was really happy to get involved in the training and give it a go

“It’s a great opportunity – really beautiful,” he says. “I was really happy to get involved in the training and give it a go.”

But it doesn’t end with an income. Change Please also helps baristas find accommodation, and aims to help them secure full-time employment within six months.

“We want to make sure this work makes a lasting difference in their lives because they are trying to take big steps forward,” Cemal explains. “As the company grows, I hope to grow with it,” Jatinder says. “I had forgotten what I was capable of – being homeless was taking up all my time. Being back in employment has brought out the best of me.”


Some people take The Big Issue’s hand up then go on to help others facing similar difficulties…

Marvina 25 birthday

Marvina Eseoghene (above) was still only a teenager when she found herself sleeping rough on the streets of east London. “Being a black woman, you’re the bottom of the food chain,” Marvina [pictured] says. “When I was speaking to other homeless people, they’d been homeless for years. I couldn’t understand it. My target was that by autumn I had to have a place of my own. I used to fantasise about that every night when I was cold.”

She decided to sell The Big Issue to earn an income. “I was a hustler so I would sell all of them,” Marvina says. “Once you start knowing how easy it is to make money, you get that grain in you and start pushing yourself. You learn how to be the most polite and nicest person you can be. In someone’s day nobody naturally gives them a compliment. If you have nothing to say, say something nice. I realised that meant a lot to people, just seeing them. In my world I was invisible, no one could see me.”

As well as selling The Big Issue, Marvina would sweep the floors of hairdressers and eventually found a job as a waitress in the Thistle Hotel, Kensington.

“Posh place!” she explains. “I was an amazing waitress so I used to get tips. After four or five months I raised enough money to get a place. A tiny room – like a cupboard – but to me it was amazing. I felt secure.”

Marvina, now aged 30 and a mother of two, is a part-time biomedical technician in Leeds but has taken a career break to focus on a charity that helps disadvantaged kids, called Angel of Youths, which she founded in 2011. Marvina’s aim was to stop other teenagers ending up in the predicament she had found herself in.

“I wanted to set up something that would see young people,” she says. “I challenge them to use what they love to fix what they hate. A lot of them are homeless. I can see their stories, it’s almost like seeing inside them. Whether they’re white, black or whatever, I can see a little bit of me.” The ethos of Angel of Youths echoes that of The Big Issue, giving people the means to improve their own lives.

“No one’s going to save you but you,” Marvina says. “You’re the superhero in the story – that’s what I got from The Big Issue. When I was homeless there was no prince in shining armour. The only person I had was myself. I could have chosen to be a victim but I chose not to be homeless – I chose to sell as many Big Issue magazines as I could.”


Marvina Eseoghene is not the only person who used to sell The Big Issue and has gone on to help other people who are homeless. Stan Burridge sold the magazine outside the old BBC headquarters. “I built up a large number of regular customers, and coffee and conversation would break up the day,” he says. “Selling The Big Issue, I learnt I had an ability to get people talking, not only talking but listening as well. I got to hear about other people’s lives, marriages, divorces and everything in between. Little did they (or I) realise, this was the start of a new chapter that would lead me to where I am today.”

Stan is now Project Lead at Pathway, which works with homeless people and other marginalised groups.

They opened the door to me and countless others and continue to cheer us all on

“I get a real sense of pride when one of them gets a job or when they make a massive step forward in other areas of their lives,” Stan says. “It’s the same feeling that The Big Issue has when one of their fold smashes through the glass ceiling and begins to fly. They opened the door to me and countless others and continue to cheer us all on.”

At the end of last year, popular vendor Bean Stocks moved on from selling The Big Issue to join Pathway. “Having been through homelessness myself, we’re experts by experience,” he says.

Terry Gore, who used to sell The Big Issue in Wimbledon, now manages Canterbury-based charity Catching Lives. “The early part of my adulthood was very destructive, committing crime, ripping off people, breaking trust,” Terry says. “I did a lot of damage to a lot of people. This is definitely my way of remedying that, putting something back on the scoreboard of life.

“I started selling The Big Issue after I’d been rough sleeping for two years,” he continues. “At the time it was just a simple and straightforward way of making money but on reflection I can see what it did for me. It started to give me back some of my own self-esteem. Nobody was giving me that money, I was having to earn it.

“I’d become very isolated and didn’t engage with anybody but selling The Big Issue meant I had to talk to people. A large part of the work I do now is people-based, so that was the start of developing interpersonal skills that are key to the work I do now.

“During these two years of rough sleeping I’d started to accept my life was probably going to be like that forever until I died. But The Big Issue started to give me an idea that my life could be different. Those 18 months selling The Big Issue was the start of my route off the streets.”

We are delighted to report that Terry and his team at Catching Lives triumphed at the Kent Charity Awards, winning Charity of the Year last month.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
FOSO is the new FOMO: Why are we so afraid to switch off and be out of office?

FOSO is the new FOMO: Why are we so afraid to switch off and be out of office?

Almost no recorded cases of disability benefit fraud despite DWP crackdown: 'PIP fraud is a non-issue'
dwp pip/ disabled person
Disability benefits

Almost no recorded cases of disability benefit fraud despite DWP crackdown: 'PIP fraud is a non-issue'

Deaf man awarded £50,000 after 'oppressive' and 'discriminatory' treatment by DWP
dwp jobcentre
Department for Work and Pensions

Deaf man awarded £50,000 after 'oppressive' and 'discriminatory' treatment by DWP

Green transition: Help retrain gas workers or risk 'cliff edge' job losses, government warned
Green transition

Green transition: Help retrain gas workers or risk 'cliff edge' job losses, government warned

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know