Richard Lewis, Capitol Shopping Centre, Queen Street, Cardiff

Richard likes to entertain the locals and potential customers with his harmonica playing

Image: Exposure Photo Agency

I’ve been rough sleeping off and on for 35 years. I’m one of the original vendors from London back when Big Issue first started. We were battling against homeless beggars back then – that was the reason John Bird set it up initially.

When it first started, I was anti-Big Issue for the first six months. That was the case for me and all my homeless mates because one minute we had nothing and the next minute we had people coming up to you saying, I have more rights than you. Eventually we latched on because people were turning to the Big Issue. We thought, ‘You know what? This is easier than sitting on the floor and begging for money.’ We stood up and had a little pride and people would say well done for doing something positive.

I’ve sold the magazine in London, Birmingham, Leicester, Swansea, as well as Cardiff. I’ve stuck with Big Issue because if you sit and beg on the streets the council and the authorities move you on. If I sit on the street with some magazines and my Big Issue jacket on, they leave me alone because I’m official.

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We’d all like to end poverty and begging, but it will never happen because the rich want to keep the rich where they are and the poor where they are. But I would rather sell the Big Issue than beg. I play the harmonica so when I sell the magazine I will entertain and play a little bit to get people’s attention, draw them in a bit and get them to look my way. As John Bird called it: we’re entrepreneurs. If I can get your attention by singing a song and getting a little smile on your way to work, then my job’s done. And if you come over and buy a magazine, then that’s a bonus.

I lost my father when his lorry crashed in France when I was 14. Then my stepfather was a bit of a weirdo and I suffered abuse from him. I complained to my mother about him when I was 14 going on 15, but I just packed a bag one night and left. I got as far as London and got trapped there on the streets begging. You couldn’t claim benefits, you couldn’t do anything because you weren’t old enough. 

I’ve been battling PTSD all my life now. When things go wrong, I just pick up my bag and walk away. It’s easier. It’s better than me losing my rag and hurting somebody. I lost my job in 2019; I was working as a vehicle inspector for an auction house. Because of my health problems I had to stop work. I lost my accommodation and I ended up going into shared housing in Birmingham.

But I’ve chosen to sleep on the streets. I’ve had to walk away from properties because I don’t like the violent side of me. If I get angry with someone then I’ll snap, so it’s better to walk away. I’ve seen so many friends beaten up or murdered on the streets because they were homeless. 

A magazine sale is one meal for me. I’m diabetic so I have to eat a hot meal at least twice a day so I can take my medication. I was built to survive, I was built to work, but now I’m dying with diabetes. I’m having the index toes on each foot removed as they are ulcerated. The infection has got into the bone and there’s nothing that they can do. All I can do is let them amputate them. But I can’t have the operation until I have somewhere to live.

I’m in pain, I’m struggling every day to walk about. I can’t keep the dressings clean. But I’ve travelled the world for so long that I’ve got no local connection so I can’t get anywhere. I’m getting to the point where I can’t take it any more. The longer I wait the more chance there is that I’ll lose my feet, not just my toes.

Interview: Liam Geraghty

Capitol Shopping Centre, Cardiff, UK