Big Issue: Help or Hindrance?

HANNAH GRAHAM wonders whether the Big Issue system really is an effective way of helping the homeless.

Big Issue Cambridge charity donation guilt homeless magazine Students Tab vendors

Walking through the streets of Cambridge I, like many of you, am often confronted by Big Issue salesmen. I try to avoid their eyes, scuttle past as though I haven’t noticed…but eventually I give in and buy it. It’s a habit I’ve inherited from my mother, a woman who has been known to buy several copies of the same issue because she physically can’t walk past a Big Issue vendor without making a purchase.

Now, you’re probably thinking that there are more horrifying confessions I could make than admitting to regular charitable donations. For me, however, the Big Issue is bound up with a complex, and possibly ridiculous, cycle of guilt. If I walk past I feel guilty. If I make a purchase, I feel guilty. Because, you see, never once have I actually read the magazine. Even that lovely looking Christmas issue with the big picture of David Tennant on the front – I really meant to read that one. But you know how it is, I’m busy, I have essays to write, and when I get a break from reading academic texts I’m usually more interested in a cheeky episode of Downton than yet more reading.

This, I know, is not the point of the Big Issue. With its slogan, ‘a hand up not a hand out’, the whole point of the magazine is that it isn’t a charitable donation. The vendors are working, providing a service that, supposedly, people want, and being paid for it. I wonder, though, whether the magazine is really achieving its aim. A friend recently explained to me why she would never buy the Big Issue. While she is happy to give to charity which admits it is charity, paying £2.50 for a magazine she doesn’t want is ridiculous, because it reduces the vendors from working – offering people a service and being fairly paid for that service by those who want it – to begging – using their status as homeless and disadvantaged to get people to give them money altruistically. I’m starting to wonder whether she might have a point.

To an extent, selling the Big Issue should count as working, because vendors are effectively self employed: after getting their first four copies for free, they pay £1.50 for each magazine, which they sell for double that. They bear the risk of not selling the copies they have paid for and they decide how much of their profits they want to invest in more magazines to sell. It offers a sense of responsibility and self sufficiency, which seems vital for people who want to lift themselves out of homelessness.

I talked to several vendors for whom the magazine has been a real lifeline, giving them a sense of purpose and independence, and allowing some to create really positive relationships with the local businesses that surround their usual ‘patch’. On the darker side of things, it sounds like disputes over territory can get quite nasty, and I doubt I’m allowed to repeat what one man tells me about the “fuckin’ Romanians” who tried to sell in his spot over Christmas.

So should I continue buying the Big Issue? Whilst I don’t want to feel like I’m patronising the vendors, undermining their attempt to move from begging to real work, I imagine they’d probably rather I hand over the £2.50 than walk past feeling morally secure and leaving them with one more magazine to sell before the end of a long, cold day. Though some try to convince me of the magazine’s merits, other vendors don’t seem too worried about their client’s motivation. Perhaps a direct donation to a homeless charity like Shelter would be a better way to help groups of people affected by homelessness, instead of just one individual. I’m not sure.

I had a read of this week’s magazine though, and actually, it’s not half bad. Maybe next time I will buy it for the articles.