Donna Barlow, 45, Christmas Market, Exeter

I had my son Josh when I was 15. The next year I went to help my nan look after my granddad in Manchester, because I was 16 with a one-year-old and everyone else was working or in school. When he died I helped her out with the funeral, then a couple of years later I ended up going to Manchester again and looking after my nan until she died. That was that part of my life.

I was given a home tutor when I had Josh. But I never got a proper job, I ended up being a carer because my mum had to pay the mortgage. I never got any qualifications at all but I started selling The Big Issue because it was the only sort of employment I could have. I started in Exeter and I was one of the first people to sign up. We all wanted to get the 007 pitch, we were all vying for it, but I think I got 008.

I got together with someone and in 1998 I had another son. He was born on December 6 and he died on December 8. He was perfect for a day and a half and then he was on machines. His bowel had perforated. His name was Bertie because my dad was Robert and my partner was Robert. We hadn’t named him when he died so we called him Bertie because we knew he was never going to grow up into a Robert. Then we split up, a lot of relationships don’t survive that.

I’ve sold Issues and I’ve travelled. I walked around Ireland with Josh for a year, just me and him. We arrived with 10 quid and a sleeping bag. I put my thumb out and this woman told us about farms where you could work and stay. I rang them up and they put us up for a few weeks, then we travelled around. We came back for Christmas and I stayed with friends and sold The Big Issue again. It’s been a lifeline really because having no qualifications, I’ve never even been to a job interview. I’ve always just looked after people. I’ve looked after friends with MS and another friend when he only had two weeks to live. It’s not paid, I’ve just looked after people when they’ve needed it. This is why I do The Big Issue, because it’s flexible. I’m not sure right now what I’ll do in the future. I love looking after people but I’ve always done it because I’m quite good at it, not for money. If I could do it for a job that would be lovely.

I had a two-bedroom flat when I was bringing up Josh but then I got caught up in the bedroom tax thing and the rent went up. I also rescued a dog and the neighbours grassed me up so I went to live in a tent for about eight or nine months. It wasn’t too bad, at the time it might have been but looking back it doesn’t seem it. I could keep clean and warm. Eventually I rang Ben Bradshaw, my MP, and he got me in somewhere while they were getting a bedsit ready for me.

Josh is sound. He got all his diplomas and he works for Exeter City Council looking after the parks. We’re very close. It’s been me and him since I was 15, it’s always been just me and him really. He’s got a good job, he drives and he’s got a nice girlfriend. I am massively proud of him. And I suppose I’m proud of myself too.

Interview: Sarah Reid

Photo: Andrew Butler