The Big Issue:
a hand up from
For many, selling
has been a first step
control of their lives
Noel Cullinane, 50, is Birmingham born and bred.
"Before I was on The Big Issue, I was on the canals and a soldier in the army."
But for the last five years, he has been selling the magazine and sleeps in a hostel.
Before that, he slept on the streets.
Today, he has a good pitch in a pedestrianised area of the city centre. Some of his regulars buy him cups of coffee, or coupons for cups of tea, he says.
During the recent cold snap, he was forced to take shelter in the local library.
What with the vagaries of the weather and the occasional abusive passerby, this is not an easy job — not by any means.
But for Noel, and hundreds like him across the country, The Big Issue is a lifeline.
The magazine was launched in London in 1991. From the beginning, its core ethos was to encourage self-sufficiency. “Helping the homeless help themselves,” was one early slogan.
Vendors buy copies of the magazine, before selling it on the street for a profit. It is a simple business model that sends a clear message: this is a hand up, not a handout — another Big Issue aphorism.
As the magazine expanded across Britain, it became clear that its homeless vendors needed more than just the money in their pocket from sales.
They needed a support network to move them on to the next stage of their lives.
The Big Issue Foundation was set up in 1995 to provide that service. It helps sellers get what they need to find their way back into mainstream life —everything from medical support and accommodation to training in the skills that will land them jobs.
"They still get money stolen
off them, spat at, abuse —
all kinds of stuff — which is just
life on the street, especially
Birmingham city centre..."
The Foundation's work is crucial, says Jon Hyde, its team leader in the West Midlands.
But the very act of selling the magazine is also part of the journey back, he argues. They have a pitch, they are selling a product and they are learning how to build a solid client base.
This is what he impresses on his team of sellers — or vendors, as he prefers to call them.
Hyde, 36, manages 120 vendors, give or take, across a territory that extends into North Wales. The exact number is constantly fluctuating, as people come and go.
He has been in the job three and a half years— long enough to know there is no typical profile for the vendors.
“There are lots of different stories… People from different backgrounds, different countries: family breakdown, losing jobs.
“You get people who are around for five minutes and people who are here for five years.”
Some, but not all might have a drink or drugs problem; some, but not all, might have mental health issues.
Most of them have simply been blindsided by life: the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a violent relationship.
Selling the The Big Issue is not exclusively reserved for those actually sleeping on the streets. That would make no sense, says Hyde.
“We work with a variety of different people, from street homeless through to vulnerably housed.”
The job of the outreach team is to help them move on to where they want to be: a steady job, mainstream housing— in from the cold.
“Most people start working with us when they're at a low ebb,” he says. “If we are trying to take somebody on that journey, then we have to be able to work with people all the way in between.”
And it is not an easy option. Vendors won’t make a fortune selling the magazine and they sometimes face hostility and abuse.
“They still get money stolen off them, spat at, abuse, all kinds of stuff, which is just life on the street, especially Birmingham city centre...
“Obviously you're putting yourself out there, you're asking somebody to buy a product from you” — and not everyone appreciates that.
That much is clear from the complaints he has to field.
“Some people have a political axe to grind...We have people from different countries working for us, from different areas of the world. If you have an issue with immigration policy...”
“It varies massively” he says — everything from petty issues to more serious matters.
“Some people have got a political axe to grind as well and come from a certain political kind of persuasions, shall we say.”
“We have people from different countries working for us, from different areas of the world. If you have issue with immigration, some of the time people will have a certain axe to grind against different people in different countries.”
Certainly, it is hard to miss the foreign vendors scattered across the city, some of them still struggling with the language.
Hyde’s team offers English lessons to those who need it, thanks to a team of volunteer teachers.
“I guess we see it as professional development. If you can speak a little bit of English it means you can sell the magazine.”
But it is also a question of security, he says: you cannot send someone out there with no English at all.
Paun Eftenoiu is still battling to get to grips with English: at 51, it does not come easy, he says.
He has a prime spot inside the shopping complex built around Birmingham's main train station, New Street.
He has been selling the magazine for seven years.
He came over from Romania eight years ago looking for a job. "Romania, shit money, no good life."
But because of his lack of English, he couldn't find work — until he found the magazine.
"The Big Issue is very good for me."
What many people still don't understand, says Hyde, is the people selling the magazine are not asking for charity.
“Our vendors are selling a product to the public in exactly the same way as when you go into a shop you're buying … whatever product you're buying,” he says.
And it’s a winning product.
Editor Paul McNamee has picked up a string of prizes in recent years, including twice being named Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors.
Sales are a far cry from their peak in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the magazine sometimes recorded more than 250,000 sales per issue.
Most recently however, it has bucked the downward trend in the print market, increasing sales in 2017 for the third year running to hit a five-year high. ABC-audited sales for last year came in at 83,073 copies.
“At this time, when there are newspaper titles shutting up shop, any increase in circulation is worth singing and dancing about,” says feature editor, Steven MacKenzie.
And with 72 percent of its readership in the affluent ABC1 category — 43 percent of them AB — that helps bring in the advertisers.
A typical issue blends coverage of social issues, profiles of vendors and celebrity interviews. It is a good read, MacKenzie insists: “It is not just trivial gossip.”
Even the film reviews focus not on the latest popcorn movie, but ones that have some kind of message. “It is the same with most of the content and celebrity names,” says MacKenzie: “We focus on people who have something to say.”
One of things he likes best about the magazine is how you can find celebrity interviews just a page or two way from profiles of their vendors — and it is often the vendors, he says, who have the more interesting stories to tell.
They took that to its logical conclusion last year, when they persuaded Russell Brand to meet some of the vendors to discuss their common problem with addiction, said MacKenzie. (Brand’s book on the subject was about to come out.)
“His experience had so much in common with some of the vendors, who had come through their own addiction.”
Bringing them together to compare notes worked, says MacKenzie, because “their stories were important to each other, and each gave the other story an extra dimension.”
From the very beginning, The Big Issue counted on the generosity of philanthropists from the business world.
After all it was Gordon Roddick, co-founder of The Body Shop cosmetics chain, who launched the magazine along with John Bird.
Over the years, the magazine has kept in touch with the self-help ethos that has always driven it. And as it grows, it gives more back.
Big Issue Invest, set up in 2005, describes itself as Britain's first “social merchant bank”.
Its stated mission is to “dismantle poverty by creating opportunity, through self-help, social trading and business solutions”.
And it does that by investing in social entreprises like itself, working with like-minded investors.
In its latest report it detailed how it had invested nearly £10.7 million into 68 projects across Britain.
Back at the Birmingham office though, Jon Hyde is more concerned about the city centre beggars.
He walked past seven of them in a 50-metre stretch — and the Big Issue vendor at the end of the street said he hadn’t been able to sell a single copy.
Does he want them arrested? Cleared off the streets? Of course not.
He wants them scattered across the region, selling the magazine — “...and any Big Issue office would tell you same.”
Begging, he argues, will get them nowhere fast: The Big Issue offers light at the end of the tunnel.
Writer Jonny Jacobsen helped launch the Scottish edition of The Big Issue in 1993.
Also in this series:
1 The Big Issue: a hand up from the streets
2 Michael's Story Michael, 27, lost everything after his father died. The Big Issue helped him find his way back.
3 Street Wise Councillor Sharon Thompson is well placed to speak for the homeless: as a teenager, she slept rough on the streets of Birmingham herself.
4 How you can help You want to help Birmingham's homeless? A few ideas…