I had a bit of a debate yesterday. It is amazingly and shamefully the THIRD time I have had this discussion with people this week alone but is also something that I have encountered with others quite a few times over recent years. The debate was in relation to Big Issue sellers on the street.
Everywhere I have lived, everywhere I have travelled within the UK I have heard similar rumours and urban myths in pubs and bars to the one below which triggered all 3 debates this week.
“I tell you what that Eastern European woman in town selling the Big Issue is a pain in the arse! She is always there trying to flog you the magazine and then takes the piss by jumping into a big expensive Mercedes and driving off. It’s a piss take, they get given these magazines to sell to make money and they don’t even need it cause they’re driving around in cars like that. I have heard that she has a nice big house too and send all her Big Issue money back home to her family in Romania or wherever she is from. Most of them only do it for drug money too.”
It’s shocking and ignorant rubbish and really boils my blood. I have heard different versions of this story in different towns and cities but all that really changes is the make and model of the vendor’s alleged vehicle. There seems to be this misconception that selling BI is a form of begging and scrounging and only for drug addicts and immigrants.
In the past I have chosen to ignore these people and thought it a waste of time trying to make them see past the myth and rumour and actually listen to what they’re saying and look at the facts. However, this week the same kind of nonsense has been said by my own friends and some family members and so I thought it only right to fill them in on the truth.
It made me wonder though whilst I was talking to them how many other blissfully ignorant people have similar opinions of Big Issue vendors? Have you had similar thoughts or heard similar nonsense?
Before I tackled their personal issue with our local vendor I thought I would address their misconceptions surrounding the Big Issue itself.
The Big Issue, in my opinion is a very worthwhile charity service helping some of the most vulnerable people in need of help and support. The BI website states;-
The Big Issue offers some of the most excluded people in the country a unique opening to take some control of their lives and earn a legitimate income. Vendors make a personal choice to buy their magazines with their own money, taking charge of their finances and sales whilst developing the skills required to retail to the public.
Vendors buy the Big Issue magazine for 50% of the cover price. The magazines are not free and we do not operate a sale or return policy. We believe in the merits of work and do all we can to support vendors as they move their own ‘micro-businesses’ forward.
The formula is simple but challenging. Becoming a vendor gives people who are homeless or sleeping rough, in temporary accommodation, in danger of losing a home or unemployed and facing financial crisis the opportunity to sell a weekly entertainment and current affairs magazine to earn money. We are unique because our service users are working, they are our ‘customers’ and not our ‘clients’.
The Big Issue Foundation is a financially independent charity. We build around the unique trust that we establish with people who are homeless as they purchase magazines. We support and encourage vendors to make further changes to their lives so they can move away from homelessness and back into main stream society. We believe change is possible and never give up on people no matter how challenging or complex their needs, wants and aspirations may be.
When I explained to these people that the magazines are NOT free and they are not GIVEN to the vendors they were shocked… “Ah so it’s a bit like AVON then in that sense” one of them said. Precisely. These people buy their stock to sell on for a profit. What is wrong with that?
The whole purpose is to encourage people in financial dilemma and of no fixed abode to get help by helping themselves. To encourage them to learn the skills required to sell to the public and manage their own money. To allow people whose lives may have taken a turn for the worse and spiralled out of control to regain a little control and recover somewhat. It allows people to make money and the charity also offers support services to help the vendors get access to healthcare, employment, housing and training. How on earth, especially in this current climate, can this be a BAD thing? How can anybody criticise somebody taking time to EARN money instead of sitting on their rears and accepting welfare handouts or becoming snowed under with a mountain of cursed pay day loan debts?
So The Big Issue is a good thing yeah?… “Well yeah I suppose so… But she is still a pain in the arse”.
The vendor in my local area who they describe as “a pain in the arse” and always “trying to flog you the magazine” could not be any more different from this description.
The female vendor has sold Big Issue outside my local Co-op for at least 3 years now. Prior to selling Big Issue she would sit and play the accordion. This I have to admit was a nightmare and would quickly drive you mad listening to the same 4 tunes over and over again. However, when she sells her magazines she simply stands still and quietly, I mean almost inaudibly, says “BIG ISSUE”. I have bought a couple over the years and found her very polite and genuinely appreciative of you taking the time to stop and have a quick chat. She is a lovely woman and stands out in the sun, wind, rain and snow to earn a few quid.
I have also sat in the nearby café and watched in disgust as people do anything possible to ignore her and walk around her in a great big arc in fear of being spoken to by this lovely woman. People reach for mobile phones upon seeing her to pretend they are busy. People panic and pretend to be in conversation with another person. Some just rudely walk past her and ignore her. She is far from pushy, rude, or a “pain in the arse”. In fact, in all the towns and cities in which I have seen Big Issue vendors I have NEVER seen one acting inappropriately pushy or in your face. Yes some may be more forward, loud and outspoken than others but come on, these people are of no fixed abode, in need of financial support to eat and live and are actively trying to improve their way of living. You have to forgive them for wanting to sell their magazines. I am not foolish enough to believe that all BI vendors are polite, kind, considerate and drug free but I can only say with 100% honesty I have never seen anybody act in the way. Put yourself in their position. If YOU were homeless or in great financial difficulty and needed to eat and perhaps even feed children, would you not do anything possible to try and sell your magazines? I know I would. There will no doubt be those that say they should “just get a job”… if only it was that easy at a time when the unemployed outnumber available jobs.
If this woman is standing out in the most horrific weather and been treated by other human beings like she is a mange ridden stray dog so that she can make some money to get by and if she feels the need to send some of this money to others or whatever else she decides to spend it on then what the hell has that got to do with anybody else? She is earning her money, not having it handed to her for free. Nobody tells me or you what we can spend our wages on or who we can give money too so what gives anybody the right to moan about what Big Issue sellers allegedly do with their money?
As I have heard about the old expensive car and house myth many times, I asked these people if they had actually SEEN her get into a Mercedes or was it hearsay? Most said it was what they had been told by others and accepted that it could be a load of rubbish. However, one or two said they had seen it with their own eyes. Funnily enough the colour of the car was different in both accounts but what was the same in both stories was that she didn’t get in and DRIVE the car, she got into the front passenger seat and the car was driven by a male in a suit. I asked them if they honestly think this woman had loads of money, drove around in a very expensive car and lived in a nice big house but has chosen to stand on the street all day for several days a week for the last 3-4 years trying to sell magazines to make a few extra quid? Why on earth would she? She certainly hasn’t funded this alleged expensive lifestyle through her takings as a BI vendor so when does she have to time to work another job to finance her house and car? Could it be possible that this male in the suit with an expensive car, if he even exists, is simply a charity worker, taxi driver, social worker or perhaps a relative or friend? Who is the person that followed and watched her enter a nice big house? How do we know this was HER house? I pointed out, as a angry detective would, that this story seemed somewhat lacking in evidence and seemed a little to convenient and tailor made to suit the negative opinion of people who simply have an issue with being reminded that there are others out there in need of help and who are perhaps not as fortunate as ourselves and it makes them feel uncomfortable as they go about their day and have to make an effort to ignore her.
In the end I think they all got the fact that I was angry but they all agreed that what they had said was wrong. I challenged them all to next time either stop and buy a Big Issue or just smile and say hello to her. I hope they don’t let me down.
Remember that whilst we’re all at home with our family this Christmas enjoying the festive spirit, opening presents and stuffing our faces, there are thousands of homeless and vulnerable people who will struggle to afford even a meal.
Next time YOU see a Big Issue Vendor why not stop and buy a copy? They make good reading and you will be helping somebody in need. Alternatively you can learn more and donate at the Big Issue website