The Big Issue at 30: What it means to stars of screen, politics and music

Big names and supporters wish The Big Issue a happy 30th birthday and tell us what the fight against social injustice means to them

Benedict Cumberbatch. The Big Issue

Benedict Cumberbatch has been a Big Issue cover star more times than anyone else. Image: HARRY EELMAN/The New York Time​s/ / eyevine

The Big Issue is more than a magazine. Everyone selling it, reading it or creating it knows that. Over the last 30 years, The Big Issue has touched the lives of millions and helped tens of thousands more. We asked some of our prominent supporters from the worlds of politics, culture and the homelessness sector what The Big Issue means to them. Here’s what they told us

Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London. Photo: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London

“For three decades, The Big Issue has been a lifeline for thousands of homeless and long-term unemployed people living in the UK. It has helped give people in extreme poverty back their dignity and support them as they get back on their feet. On one hand, The Big Issue reaching 30 is testament to all the amazing work that the team do in their bid to help eradicate homelessness.

“On the other hand, its continued existence means there is still so much to be done. The fact that there are so many vulnerable people facing homelessness in the capital and around the UK is shameful, and the pandemic has only exacerbated these issues. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need The Big Issue. But now and for the past 30 years it has proved to be invaluable to so many people and that is something to be extremely proud of. So to all the people that make The Big Issue what it is – happy birthday and thank you.”

Benedict Cumberbatch. Photo: HARRY EELMAN/The New York Time​s/eyevine

Benedict Cumberbatch, actor

“It’s great to hear that I’ve been on the cover more than anyone else. Wow. Maybe I should have gone up to a vendor and taken a selfie with them. That would have been a nice thing to do. I always buy my issue when I am around. The whole premise is that you have good journalism, you have insightful policy and political pieces and profiles, and arts coverage. At the same time it’s a great circular economy – that idea that the person you are buying from is directly benefiting from the sale of that. It sets up the idea of pride and ownership and the entrepreneurship that comes with that.

“What can you say? It’s been much derided and that, in a way, is itself a badge of honour. It’s a time to celebrate what’s been achieved and look to a future. Print media is under such threat. I don’t know how The Big Issue deals with that but vendors do contactless now. That’s cool and absolutely vital for selling a tactile three-dimensional object as opposed to a bit of digital space. I love the human interaction of it. That’s what I have always liked about it. If I have time, I’ll ask the vendor about their story if they want to talk about it. It’s a brilliant enterprise – such a simple idea but it took so much balls and guts to actually get done. Great work. It’s something we can take great pride in.”

Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader

“The Big Issue’s unique model enables vendors to earn a much-needed income, but it means so much more besides. A role, regular social interaction and the stability to regain one’s independence are invaluable gifts that The Big Issue has provided for thousands of people over the past decades, many of whom become well-known and loved figures in their local community. That ethic of never giving up on people, restoring hope and the ability to turn their lives around, is held dear by me. It drove many of my decisions when working in the criminal justice system. We must never accept homelessness, and thousands sleeping rough on our streets, as a normal state of affairs. It is a moral emergency that demands urgent action.

“All of us are hurt and knocked down at some point in our lives. The past decade of Conservative cuts to public services has meant the safety net which was once there to catch us has been pulled away. It is a source of national shame that this intolerable situation – with 100,000 children now living in temporary accommodation – continues to worsen when we ought to be doing everything in our power to end homelessness. I know the past 18 months have been particularly difficult for Big Issue vendors. The Big Issue Foundation deserves huge praise for the support they have provided. Congratulations to everyone at The Big Issue on 30 years of incredible work.”

Vicky McClure. Photo: 2017 Shutterstock

Vicky McClure, actor

“The Big Issue has played a very big part in helping the homeless over the last 30 years, and that’s why I will always be a big supporter. Big love, Big Issue! X”

Samira Ahmed, broadcaster

“Now more than ever The Big Issue feels like my essential weekly multivitamin of social justice, ethical journalism and mind-expanding ideas; a welcome counter to the biased coverage that’s been taking over much supposedly mainstream news outlets. I’ve been using Letter To My Younger Self to teach journalism students about brilliant interviewing for years. The music, TV and arts coverage is the best there is. And getting to know my regular Big Issue sellers has enriched my life. Happy birthday, Big Issue!”

Caitlin Moran. Photo: EFE News Agency/Alamy Stock Photo

Caitlin Moran, writer

“Every time I see a Big Issue seller, even though I have a subscription, I buy a copy, because it’s such a perfect idea. And an idea that has lasted. Instead of simple charity, create a business and a product that, in turn, creates paid vendors, paid writers, paid editorial staff. A whole world of smartness and opportunity – something you want to both pay for and applaud. And because of the respect The Big Issue has, it gets interviews with people who wouldn’t want to talk to anyone else.

“It’s like a constant, shining, parallel world of practical intelligence and decency. I have a list of inarguably good things that I look at whenever I feel blue – the Olympics opening ceremony, Grayson Perry, James Baldwin, Bob Mortimer, libraries, roses, tea – and The Big Issue is at number three. God bless it for ever.”

Eddie Hughes, minister for rough sleeping and housing

“The Big Issue and its sellers have been a feature on our streets for the past 30 years and I’d like to thank everyone involved for continuing to shine a light on homelessness. I’ve seen first hand the difference The Big Issue has made up and down the country, giving people an income so they can turn their lives around – I look forward to another 30 years of them making a difference.”

Daniel Mays. Photo: Martin Godwin / Guardian / eyevine

Daniel Mays, actor and Big Issue Ambassador

“The Big Issue represent an absolute life force to the people who need it most. People who have had to deal with the harshest realities of poverty, homelessness, abandonment and inequality. It gives vendors a stepping stone, an income and a much-needed voice to regain control of their lives and bring about change. I’m immensely proud to be an ambassador for this incredible institution.”

Bryan Adams. Image: Mike Lewis Photography/Redferns

Bryan Adams, rock star and photographer

“Imagine a magazine that gives back to the community, and gives dignity and support to people in need and you have The Big Issue. It could be the most worthwhile magazine ever.”

Robert Macfarlane, writer

“Happy big birthday to The Big Issue! To me it’s one of the very best magazines out there – it knocks the socks off Vogue, it pushes National Geographic off the map. Like many people I buy it because I want to support those who sell it, but I also buy it because I always want to read it. For three decades – week in, week out – it’s been a huge force for the good in individual lives and in society at large.”

Christopher Eccleston, a Big Issue Ambassador. Photo: 2019 Getty Images

Christopher Eccleston, actor and Big Issue Ambassador

“Buying a weekly edition of The Big Issue is an acknowledgement that we care.”

Michael Sheen, actor and activist

“It’s a way to say hello if you don’t know how. It’s something to hold on to and something to give. It’s something to stand on and get yourself seen, it’s a step up or a sit down, a chat, a smile, a good read and sometimes a good listen. It’s the passion of John [Bird] and the resilience of all the Johns and Bills and Colins and Marys. It’s digging in and hanging on and staying around and doing it yourself. It’s a chance.”

Sophie Winkleman, actor and Big Issue Ambassador

“The Big Issue is an amazing British institution – it is in this country’s blood. It is such a brilliant magazine – intelligent, witty, thought-provoking and profound, full of integrity and authenticity. And it offers people who fall through the cracks and become homeless self-esteem and a sense of purpose.”

Jake Bugg. Photo: Supplied

Jake Bugg, musician

“Happy birthday, Big Issue! I remember seeing The Big Issue everywhere when I was growing up. It’s an incredible thing to see what you’ve done for all these years – helping people off the streets and giving them an opportunity to get back into society. There’s not many papers I’d really commend. I think most people feel like that about journalism. But what The Big Issue does is amazing.”

David Lammy MP, shadow justice secretary and Big Issue Ambassador

“I’m proud to be a Big Issue Ambassador. It’s a magazine committed to ensuring that people who are less well off than us have a lifeline. Our high streets aren’t busy, but The Big Issue is still there. And we can make a huge difference to so many people who need a home and who need that lifeline.”

George Clarke, also a Big Issue Ambassador. Photo: Channel 4

George Clarke, architect, TV presenter and Big Issue Ambassador

“The Big Issue over the last 30 years has been a beacon of hope for those desperately in need of a safe, secure and stable home, as well as being a constant, tough reminder to everyone across the UK that homelessness still exists on a massive scale… when it shouldn’t.”

Sophie Willan, Bafta-winning creator of Alma’s Not Normal

“I’ve been buying The Big Issue and talking to vendors since 2007. To me, it’s the most important paper we have in the UK. As well as all the brilliant behind-the-scenes work they do to dismantle poverty and make the country a fairer place, it gives a voice and platform to people and stories that are rarely depicted positively and honestly in society. The Big Issue is very much after my own heart in that way. Happy birthday, Big Issue. Here’s to another 30 groundbreaking years!”

Aisling Bea. Photo: Matt Writtle / E​vening Standard / eyevine

Aisling Bea, comedian and actor

“I have always known about The Big Issue’s work, but until I took out a subscription over the pandemic, I had not known what a vast array of great writing and journalism it produces. And how it is often the voice of truth to power in ways which are not about party politics but issues which matter to most people. It has a moral stance which many other publications do not and is always a kind and brave voice of reason. Love you guys!”

Lucy Horitz, Glass Door chief executive

“The Big Issue piqued my early interest in homelessness. My parents bought the magazine in the 1990s and it was the only real window I had into homelessness. As I got older, I would buy the magazine myself and it allowed the buyer and the seller to have a friendly chat. These conversations broke down barriers. And now, as the CEO of a homeless charity, I appreciate The Big Issue for other reasons. Some people we support are also vendors. It can be an important source of income and a source of pride.

“The magazine is willing to take a hard-hitting stance, representing the voices of those who have fallen through the system and it’s reassuring to know that there are journalists that have the independence to be able to hold policy makers accountable.”

The Big Issue 1438. Image: The Big Issue

Sam Fender, musician

“The work that The Big Issue does is phenomenal. My friend Earl was a Big Issue vendor for years when he was on the streets. When we first met he told me how The Big Issue essentially saved his life. He now has a home and a job helping people who have had similar experiences as himself. I’m thankful for The Big Issue for helping Earl out, because he’s a phenomenal person. Thank you for everything you do.”

Tracy-Ann Oberman, actor and activist

“Apart from fantastic interviews and features The Big Issue has empowered so many to be more in control of their futures. On a personal note, over the years I’ve built up really nice relationships with local Big Issue sellers and seen them rebuild their lives.”

Gordon Brown. Photo: GL Portrait / Alamy Stock Photo

Gordon Brown, former prime minister

“I congratulate The Big Issue on 30 years of campaigning stamina which keeps the plight of the homeless on the political agenda. Homelessness – and the joblessness and the hopelessness that accompany it – is not inevitable. It depends on the decisions government makes. It is a sad fact that the austerity policies of the last decade have caused the numbers of street homeless to soar. The Big Issue’s advocacy and activism against homelessness is as important now as it was when it founded. Keep going.”

Seyi Obakin, Centrepoint chief executive

“The Big Issue has been a strong advocate for tackling homelessness for the past 30 years. Before the pandemic began we were already witnessing a homelessness crisis in this country. The Big Issue and organisations delivering frontline services are needed now more than ever in order to support people on the brink of homelessness and to help them move on from homelessness for ever.”

Lorrita Johnson, director of homelessness services at The Salvation Army

“When I reflect on the work of The Big Issue, the quote: ‘Give a man a fish and he will be satisfied for a day, but give him the tools to fish and he can do so for a lifetime’ comes to mind. The Big Issue gives hope and seeks to level up the inequality faced by the marginalised within our society. Thank you for the dedication to address social injustice while giving hope to people experiencing homelessness.”

Kathy Burke. Photo: Sarah Lee / Guardian / eyevine

Kathy Burke, actor and director

“I love The Big Issue but it’s a disgrace that it was ever needed in the first place. Happy birthday to the most dignified publication on the planet.”

Denise Welch, actor and TV presenter

“The Big Issue is an important part of our lives. They have tackled so many important issues over the years. A piece I did, Letter To My Younger Self, remains one of my favourite articles. There is a massive rise in newly unemployed people at risk of homelessness because of the pandemic. The Big Issue will lead the way in shining a much-needed light on what we can do to help. Here’s to the next 30 years.”

Stephen Graham. Photo: Guardian / eyevine. All Rights Reserved.

Stephen Graham, actor

“One of my most prominent memories was when I got off the train and I saw my cousin selling The Big Issue. That broke my heart in many ways. But I also remember how much help it gave him, what they did to help him find housing – it’s a beautiful thing.”

Jon Sparkes, Crisis chief executive

“The Big Issue does incredible work supporting people who are experiencing homelessness and helping them leave homelessness behind, and will have changed the lives of so many over the years. We’re proud to work alongside them to campaign for the changes we need so that one day we will create a society where homelessness doesn’t exist.”

Steve Douglas, St Mungo’s chief executive

“The work The Big Issue and Lord John Bird have done over the past 30 years has transformed lives and given people experiencing street homelessness the opportunity to take ownership of their own futures. Big Issue vendors have also made homelessness visible in the community in a positive way, helping to create awareness, empathy and understanding with the public.”

Mike Thiedke, Depaul UK chief executive

“The Big Issue paved the way 30 years ago to empower homeless people to earn their own living and continues to be a groundbreaking social enterprise today. To us at Depaul UK, it is a shining example of our shared approach of working alongside and supporting people facing homelessness.”

Earth Day Special Cover
Earth Day special cover, magazine edited by Chris Packham. Illustrations: Matthew Brazier

Chris Packham, broadcaster, activist and former Big Issue guest editor

“In the worrying times we find ourselves in, The Big Issue is a bastion of what is best about Britain. Such a beautifully simple idea which improves the lives of so many through a little kindness. The reward is interesting top-quality journalism, an act of individual empowerment which confronts inequality, a real offer of real hope and collectively. I love The Big Issue and everything it stands for and against.

“The offer to be guest editor for the Earth Day special this year was a career highlight. Working with the editorial team and the opportunity to involve young environmentalists was a joy.”

Cherie Blair, barrister

“I remember when The Big Issue launched in 1991 and it was an exciting time to see a publication helping homeless people find a voice and a chance to earn an income. To me The Big Issue is about making people aware of social injustices that many of us can see in every corner of the UK. Given the increase in homelessness we see today, the magazine is more relevant now than it’s ever been.”

Other words of support through the years

Marcus Rashford, footballer and campaigner

“Rain or shine, one of the most recognisable things to hear on our high street is: ‘Big Issue!’ We’ve missed you during this last year. Good luck and enjoy it – you’re doing a great job.”

Mark Hamill, Star Wars legend

“What impressed me most was Big Issue’s business model – empowering the homeless like you do is not only admirable, it is also positively inspirational.”

The Dalai Lama

“I appreciate your ­work helping the homeless – a good service to humanity.”

Theresa May, former prime minister

“The Big Issue has been an incredible force for good in Britain.”

Sir Alex Ferguson, football manager

“Big Issue vendors are trying to get back on their feet. What is it you say? ‘A hand up, not a hand out?’ Excellent!”

Benjamin Zephaniah, poet

“I love The Big Issue. I buy it a lot.”

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland

“I am delighted The Big Issue continues to play an important role in creating a fairer and more inclusive Scotland.”

Armando Iannucci, screenwriter and former Big Issue guest editor

“The Big Issue has provided a livelihood and a means of survival for so many people out on the streets. It’s a fantastic magazine.”

Jarvis Cocker, singer and former Big Issue guest editor

“The work the Big Issue does is more important now than ever.”

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.
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