Opinion

This year has shown us what's important

As The Big Issue prepares to enter its 30th year, Sabrina Cohen-Hatton — once a vendor, now a top firefighter and Big Issue Ambassador — looks at the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Sabrina Cohen-Hatton shared her homelessness story in 2019

It has been a strange, crazy year. But I think it’s given everybody an opportunity to pause and reflect on what is really important. When we see the kind of loss that others have experienced and see people experiencing uncertainty with their jobs, being furloughed, businesses folding and unemployment rates rising, then it gives us the chance to pause and reflect on what’s important.

As a Big Issue ambassador, it feels really special to give something back to a cause that helped me so much. And it really did help me. So helping people having a similar experience to the one I once had is a privilege. It has also brought me some closure, it feels like I’m able to complete that circle.

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But even more it is the idea that by speaking out, I might have been able to change attitudes towards people experiencing homelessness, and help people see it as an experience rather than part of someone’s identity.

I spoke at the Big Sleep Out in Trafalgar Square, which was amazing to be involved with. I still find it incredibly hard to talk about my experiences. But I do it because I know it’s important for people to hear – to help to change people’s minds, to tell people in that situation that it doesn’t have to define you.

So I will continue to do it, even though it’s emotionally difficult every time. Standing in front of several thousand people doing it was even more daunting, but I felt privileged to be able to do it. I didn’t sleep out. I would still find that too difficult. It would bring back too many memories.

“I didn’t sleep out. I would still find that too difficult. It would bring back too many memories.”

It has been especially important to support Big Issue vendors this year. If I think back to my experience of selling The Big Issue, the idea of having that opportunity taken away through the most unexpected circumstances, not being able to have the structure or self-determination that being a vendor gives you, is something I’d have found incredibly difficult. So I have been proud to see the way The Big Issue has been supporting vendors during that period. It has been absolutely crucial.

And it’s something people might not appreciate, but it’s really important to know, because the contribution The Big Issue makes through sales of subscriptions or digital subscriptions or people buying the magazine from shops is helping them help people who’ve had those important life factors taken away from them. That self-determination and ability to earn for themselves was taken away with no warning in circumstances completely out of their control.

So by supporting The Big Issue, you might provide a phone top-up for someone to stay in contact with friends or family, or provide food or books to help connect someone in another way. We’ve all had things we take for granted taken away from us. But when you are selling The Big Issue and experiencing homelessness, you’re even more vulnerable. You are less likely to have a support system around you – that is part of the reason you’re experiencing those challenges in the first place. You have fallen through the gaps, and there was no one to catch you. But The Big Issue kept that net there, which I think was very special.

We have seen GDP dip by a huge amount already. We are seeing the economic impact of the pandemic. And that’s something very real for a lot of people.

So a big question for me is, what comes next? How can we help people? One of the biggest challenges I experienced through homelessness was about social mobility – how can you change your story? We know people experiencing poverty have less access to opportunities. But we also know people experiencing poverty have just as much potential as anybody else. So the point for me is, how do we build a stronger society on the other side of this so everybody can realise their potential?

I’m excited about the new ambassadors – Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Mays, Sophie Winkleman and George Clarke joining The Big Issue because it means more people who can provide a voice for people who otherwise don’t have one.

That, for me, has been the biggest joy about being an ambassador because I know what it’s like not to have your voice heard. It was a privilege to be your first ambassador, but it’s even more of a privilege to know I’m never going to be your last.

I’m looking forward to meeting up with them all when we are allowed, to explore what we can do together. So in 2021, I will continue to champion the voices of people experiencing homelessness and try to change people’s views so more people think about homelessness as an experience and not an identity. I’m also keen to help people think more about contributions we can all make to expand opportunities for social mobility. It is so important we take the lessons we’ve learned and reflected on this year and carry those forward.

Beyond that, I’m hoping to be able to hug more people. I can’t wait. I want to hug more humans… but in the meantime, thank goodness for my dogs.

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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