The Big Issue, the magazine sold on the streets by the homeless, is ten years old this month. The next three issues will describe and celebrate its history; the first of these – available on street corners in almost any town in Britain of any size you care to name – leads with an extract from Tessa Swithinbank’s book Coming up from the Streets: The Story of the ‘Big Issue’ (Earthscan, £12). Swithinbank begins her story in 1967 when John Bird (Anglo-Irish working-class family from Paddington slums; spent his formative years in detention centres, art schools and the Socialist Labour League) first met Gordon Roddick (public-school educated ex-wandering poet; later husband of Anita, founder of the Body Shop). At the time, Bird was on the run from the police; they talked about poetry. It was a mythic beginning. Twenty-four years later, Roddick, on a business trip to New York, came across a homeless man selling a paper called Street News; the man told him that his job had changed the way he felt about himself, giving him a chance to be part of ‘the throbbing race of life and not a bit of garbage sitting on a corner waiting for someone’s indulgence’ (or at least that’s what Roddick remembers him saying). Roddick wanted to try something similar at home, and he enlisted his old friend.
The Big Issue, in its various local editions, now sells 250,000 copies a week. There has been good journalism on drug addiction, domestic violence, deaths in police custody and poverty. But there are funny bits and star turns too. Julie Burchill has been a contributor; so has Noam Chomsky. It hit the big time a while ago, with sought-after interviews with the Stone Roses and George Michael (‘breaking a six-year silence’). Guest editors have included Damien Hirst and David Bailey – Big Issue chic. The ads say something, too: Levis, Sony, Calvin Klein, Bacardi; British Nuclear Fuels, a contentious issue in the office, soon pulled; some of the best clients are Rizla and Drum Tobacco, which says something else. They also now deal in travel insurance and ticket sales. The paper has spawned offspring in Australia, Cape Town and LA, and has helped establish an International Network of Street Papers, which encourages similar enterprises all over the world. It’s big business.
It doesn’t, of course, make any money: not to keep, that is. It works like this. New Big Issue vendors, who have to be homeless, or at least start homeless, are given a badge and a pitch after a week’s training. The first ten copies of the paper come free; after that, they buy each one for 40p and sell it for £1. All profit the paper makes is now channelled into the Big Issue Foundation, a charity set up in 1995 to provide housing and benefit advice, job training and some financial support to vendors. The Foundation, it says, ‘reflects the principle of self-help which governs the magazine’: think AA. John Bird says: ‘The Big Issue Foundation aims to help these people regain the dignity of independence. Self-esteem. Independence. It’s all good stuff.’ Very much the ‘hand up, not handout’ approach.
The first vendors, Swithinbank says, were naturally suspicious. One reported: ‘I remember that the main thing I kept asking was “what’s the catch?” I wondered was it like a religious organisation, and would they want you to go to church on Sunday?’ In the early days, 95 per cent of vendors were sleeping rough (of current vendors the figure is around 12 per cent), and a firm hand was needed. It has stayed firm. There’s a code of conduct that each new vendor has to sign (along with an agreement to keep their benefit office informed of all their earnings); under the heading ‘Aggression and Violence’ it says that ‘action will be taken if the following offences occur’:
1. Using aggressive or bad language towards the general public.
2. Using aggressive, harassing, or abusive behaviour towards Big Issue staff – in or out of the Big Issue building.
3. If you are found to be drunk or suspected of drinking or under the influence of drugs whilst selling or buying the magazine.
4. Fighting over pitches with other vendors, or those earning a living from the streets, e.g. buskers and beggars.
‘Committing a crime whilst wearing the Big Issue ID badge’ is also against the rules. It doesn’t sound like asking much; at the same time, it’s clear that the rules are drawn up on the basis of low expectations. Of course, the success of the Big Issue and its charitable work depends on presenting a reasonable – and clean – image to potential customers; in places such as Leeds, where there are very large numbers of vendors in small areas, and where complaints are often made about vendors behaving aggressively (BBC Leeds had a fiery listeners’ debate), sales are down. Social business needs its PR too, and the Big Issue has an army of publicity people, who have, after all, to smile if they are to sell any papers.
Luis (let’s call him that) has been selling on a pitch in North London for nearly three years. He is Spanish, like a fair minority of vendors – the proportion of foreign nationals is higher among the young. (Ninety-five per cent are white: the pattern is similar among the homeless in general.) It has taken him some time, but now the neighbours know and like him; he has regular customers, and does much better. On average, it takes him two hours to sell ten copies – which, at 60p a copy, earns him £3 an hour. Since he doesn’t make enough to be able to afford to buy very many copies at a time, he travels down to the office on Wandsworth Road early every afternoon, when business is slowest. Until recently he was squatting, but now he lives in a flat found by one of his customers, who moved out and offered it to him with the first couple of months’ rent already paid. Luis has never had any help from the Big Issue or its Foundation, but then he hasn’t asked for it very often. He went to them when he was mugged and had £80 taken, but they couldn’t help. Another frustration, apparently, is that this month the Big Issue stopped its practice of buying back up to ten unsold copies of each issue. Or so he says, though a stern spokesperson at the paper told me that sale-or-return had never been their policy (‘totally against the whole idea of the Big Issue’) – which I can easily believe. But I don’t think Luis can be the only vendor frustrated enough to tell the story slightly differently.