I recall at the beginning of the 1990s the launch of a magazine to support homeless people, allowing them to some extent work, or gain some recent experience of work, with a view to helping them out of the homeless or marginalised situation they found themselves in. On the whole, The Big Issue appears to have flourished, and it is sold as a street newspaper across the world.
I have bought the magazine on a regular basis at times in my past, and I still buy it occasionally now. Generally speaking, I will look out when I see a seller to see who or what is being shown on the front cover and make a decision to buy on that basis. I have always admired the way the magazine draws in big names to encourage people to buy it, and understand entirely why this has to be done. I’ve never bought from a particular place or seller, but will buy from anywhere or anyone when the urge arises. In principle, I support the idea, aims and the philosophy of the magazine.
However, the front cover aside, I find little of interest in it to make me a regular reader. There is little to engage me, and buying it is more of a gesture than genuine interest in content, which may be a common emotion amongst buyers. I have become concerned at the sheer number of sellers now on the streets, particularly in London, where one can barely walk a couple of blocks in the central area without coming across a seller and where sellers are frequently seen in the quieter suburbs – we have a regular outside our Morrisons beyond the North Circular, and always the same woman. In truth it leads me to question whether the model still works for homeless, vulnerable and marginalised people; whether they can truly leave the trap they are in or whether the sheer volume of people coming to our cities is overwhelming this strand of potential support.
A more worrying development amongst sellers – especially in the heart of in central London – is a desperation to sell the magazines. As someone who sell on market stalls, I can understand the frustration of having people consistently walking past you and not engaging with you in any way. In central London, the high numbers of people walking past not engaging with you, combined with the desperate social situation one might find oneself in must be even worse. But, recently and on more than one occasion, I have seen sellers shouting and swearing and passers by who are not stopping to buy The Big Issue.
Now no magazine is ever going to appeal to everyone; not everyone is going to be empathetic with people sleeping on the streets and not all sellers are going to become irate, but the trend – if it is a trend – for Big Issue vendors venting frustrations owing to a failure to sell magazines is going to undermine the magazine as a whole, and may turn some people off the causes that the magazine is seeking to address. If the number of sellers is increasing, if the concentration of sellers is increasing, if the circulation of the magazine reduces in any way at all, the frustrations may grow. It’s a pattern that those running the enterprise ought to keep a watch on.