Faces of Cambridge: Giving the homeless a voice – a series

Part 2: Lee, Big Issue regional representative and market vendor


This series of articles seeks to break the ignorance bubble surrounding homelessness and encourage people to reconsider how they think about and behave towards the homeless. We want to transform people’s perception of the homeless into individuals with their own pasts, hopes and dreams, defined by more than their situation.

Lee, born in Great Yarmouth, left his hometown "as soon as I was old enough to leave", and has since lived in Cambridge. He studied Accountancy at what is now Anglia Ruskin University, but decided that "it wasn't for me".

Since then, Lee worked as a market trader until he lost access to his son last year, which triggered a mental breakdown. Even so, his radiance and energy are contagious; he has not surrendered any optimism for the future.

Working in Cambridge

We talk to Lee outside the Cambridge Round Church, where he is selling the Big Issue. While we're chatting, other vendors appear to collect their copies for sale. Lee is the Big Issue's regional representative for Cambridge, but his conversations with the individuals who arrive suggest more than polite working relationships. He knows how long they've worked and their living situations, as well as how they're coping mentally with being on the streets.

It seems that there is a sense of community amongst the vendors."There is", Lee says. "A lot of lads have faced addiction, mental health problems. They are going to need five or six years of counselling to get through that."

As well as his role with the Big Issue, Lee works at a central Cambridge café, Le Patissier. He notes that the manager "gave me a job when no one else would".

Since he works there regularly, we go and visit him. "When we won Café of the Year, I got to go collect the award from John's."

Support networks

Lee's personal story is quite exceptional. He recognises that although Cambridge has been a supportive place for him, this is not the case for most homeless people. "People automatically look at the homeless and think, heroine addict, beggar on the street, but it's not like that".

Lee understands the scope of homelessness to be far more wide-reaching than people assume. "There are people living in London hostels, where you think you’ll just see homeless, who you’ll see putting on shirts and ties in the morning, working in offices. It’s cheaper living in a hostel."

This growing reach of homelessness is shocking, yes, but it goes to show how unfounded prejudices towards the homeless are. Though there is no national figure for how many people across the UK are homeless, official figures on people sleeping rough on any given night in 2017 were double those recorded in 2010. Besides rough sleeping, the most visible form of homelessness, there is also statutory homelessness, which qualifies individuals for assistance from local authorities, and hidden homelessness, which includes those staying in hostels, squats, overcrowded housing or those sofa-surfing.

Lee counts himself lucky. When he had become homeless, he bought a new T-shirt from Primark every day. "Why should I have to look homeless to be homeless?" One of the local shop managers "got so angry with me buying new shirts every day that she washed all my clothes for me". Down the road, Toni & Guy give him a haircut once a month.

"All the way up to Cafe Rouge there are people that support me."

Dealing with daily interactions

Despite the support from individual businesses, daily life on the street can be tough. "I’ve had old ladies see the vest, and they’ll hold their bag. Honestly it’s so demoralising. I get people with headphones who’ll walk [in a loop] around.

"I'm lucky, I can hold a conversation. If anyone gives me a bit of aggressive banter, like tells me to go get a proper job, well," he chuckles, "they sell alcohol called Proper Job so, you know, I’ve got witty lines".

For Lee, and many of the Big Issue vendors in Cambridge, "it's not about money, most of it is about the communication.

"What I always suggested to the chaplain is that when you start your time studying here, you support a vendor for a whole year", but this needn't necessarily mean buying the magazine every week.

More generally, from what we've heard, a change in outlook on homelessness is what is most needed. Anybody can become homeless, and anybody can help alleviate its effects.

Visit homelessstories.co.uk for video interviews with Lee and other homeless individuals.