Steve Chillwell, King Street, Manchester

Steve was only three when his dad died, but a chance encounter with an old family friend provided the father figure he'd always missed

I started selling The Big Issue in the north of England at the very beginning – I was vendor number six! I’m also the only vendor to ever get a chief constable’s High Commendation. A man jumped a woman with a knife in front of me when I was on my pitch in the ’90s. I took him down and kept him on his backside! I also got £250 with the Commendation.

When I first became a vendor, I was using and committing petty crime. I started smoking at the age of seven and started shoplifting when I was a teenager. I’m not a bad person, I was just doing it to get by. I’d much rather go out and earn my money. The Big Issue gave me a leg up that I don’t think I could’ve got from a probation service.

I did a few celebrity interviews for the magazine back in the early 1990s. I had a lot of famous regulars – Manchester United footballers and pop stars. They used to call me vendor to the stars!

David Beckham used to go to Flannels [clothing store] near my pitch every day after training because he was friends with someone who worked there and he would buy a magazine, and Mark Owen from Take That gave me £20 every fortnight. I also sold to Coronation Street stars like Sue Nicholls and Michael Le Vell, who really gave me a lot of support and encouragement to get my life back on track. I should write a book!

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Selling The Big Issue changed my life in so many ways. Manufacturing, Science and Finance, a trade union, used to meet once a month in Manchester, and I was allowed to sell outside. Almost all 40 delegates would buy a magazine as they were leaving.

The man who arranged it was called John Ferguson, and I found out that he knew my father, who had died in 1974, when I was three. He remembered meeting me as a baby! He asked me why I was homeless, and I told him that I had problems with drink and drugs. At the next meeting, he invited me to come and stay with him. He helped me get back on my feet. He was like a father to me. His cat, Crumble, lives with me now, so I’ve got a reminder of him.

Big Issue North even got me a place in a Priory clinic in 2000. After that, I met my wife Karen, got a job as a bakery warehouse manager for someone I met at the Priory, and stopped selling the magazine for a long time. 

Then, 10 years ago, I lost my leg in a traffic accident. In 2021, I decided to become a vendor again to keep busy. It’s much more difficult to sell now. A lot of people don’t read magazines nowadays, and sometimes people want to just give me money but not take the magazine. I’m not keen on that. I’d rather give you something for your money. It’s my job!

Things are harder on the street as well. The amount of accommodation available to homeless people has decreased massively since the early ’90s, and the accommodation that you can get is totally different nowadays. A lot of it is just rented shared houses, whereas years ago there was a lot more council accommodation. Now you see a lot more tents.

It’s harder to sell when you don’t have much money to start out with, too. I used to buy one issue, sell that, go and buy four more, sell those four, go and sell them, and so on. I have a card reader, which means I can make more sales.

It was great to see Noel Gallagher on the cover of The Big Issue recently. I met him on the corner of Deansgate and Quay Street years ago and he gave me £5 for the magazine!

Interview: Brontë Schiltz