Big Issue vendor André Rostant’s compelling first person account of our ‘Real Lives, Real Journeys’ event.
“I myself somehow felt obliged to justify not being stereotypically homeless enough – I am happily married with children.”
Glowsticks have always seemed slightly dubious to me: they smack of a conspiracy to dispose of radioactive waste by distributing it to unwitting parade and festival goers. I had certainly never associated glowsticks with the board game Monopoly until Elliot – a Big Issue vendor from Birmingham – used two to symbolise a journey that had brought him, myself, a number of other Big Issue vendors, workers, supporters and prospective supporters to the elegant Institute of Contemporary Arts, sandwiched between the palaces, mansions and clubs of Pall Mall (£160 on the Monopoly board) and St James’ Park (rent free to a few canny, well hidden rough sleepers).
The occasion was “Real Lives, Real Journeys” – a reflection on what can be achieved when The Big Issue Foundation works alongside and in support of vendors and a call to arms for those in a position to materially contribute to this work. The event - sponsored by Banham and Women of the Year Foundation - formed part of The Big Issue’s 21st birthday celebrations although - not, perhaps, as pretty as other debutantes, rather than being presented at court, The Big Issue had to hire its own (mercifully, discounted) venue to celebrate coming of age.
Monopoly is itself an irony – born of the Great Depression, it put property, money and power into the hands of anybody able to afford a board game – at a time when millions went without and the spectre of destitution was a constant companion. At the ICA, we were taken around an alternative, “reverse” Monopoly board – Chance: “You have been a victim of domestic violence and survived. The long term effects in your mental health are still there and you have been diagnosed with depression and post traumatic stress disorder. Your benefits have been suspended as you have been assessed to be fit for work”. Oh yes! And the properties tended to be shop doorways, benches and parks – zero rent, but the real prospect of adventures like being urinated on, set fire to in your sleep, or beaten up by drunken louts.
Helen Wakeman-Jones of WKD Productions conjured the theme, picked the wryly evocative venue and gave freely of her extraordinary talents, to make the whole thing work – the walls were adorned with giant fragments of Big Issue Monopoly board giving information about the magazine and its vendors – such as: “Vendors buy their magazines with their own cash” – which, curiously, not a lot of people know.
One significant barrier faced by the homeless is social stigma: try getting between an acquaintance and the exit door, grinning broadly, and telling them your hobbies are cross dressing and arson – this should give you a mild first hand experience of something like the typical reactions of people in general - and particularly of employers, when we tell them we are homeless.
It is hardly surprising, then, that this kind of feedback – promoted in no small measure by partial and judgmental politicians and media – develops into a great dune of petty and not so petty knockbacks that grind down people who are homeless’ confidence and make even the most resilient of us a bit defensive – for example: toward the end of the event, after having performed smoothly and eloquently as our MC for the evening, Joel Hodgson, when revealed to be a former vendor, appeared compelled to confront one stereotype, albeit with a humorous quip that he was neither “a rapper”, nor “a Michael Jackson tribute act”. I myself somehow felt obliged to justify not being stereotypically homeless enough – I am happily married with children. And this, despite being in the midst of a welcoming gathering of patently sympathetic, friendly people!
Elliot, wielding his glowstick as if it were some supermarket own brand economy light sabre, put this into perspective – telling the story of his rise from abuse and disillusionment, aided by Tom – upon whom he conferred the second light sabre of the evening – making him the Obi Wan Kenobi – and friend - who guided Elliot Skywalker toward using the Force of his own gumption and initiative to overcome self doubt – to rebuild his self esteem and confidence.
But who or what is Tom?
Tom is a “service broker” with The Big Issue Foundation – his mission – and he always chooses to accept it – is to help vendors access such organisations or services as might reach down and help us scrabble up out of the deep muddy sided crater that is homelessness - should we reach up for them. As the motto goes: “A hand up”.
Of course, on occasion the message, and the mission, self destructs, but with only 25 permanent staff in The Foundation (there are 90 in its independent sister organization, the Magazine), and a typical average of around 2000 vendors out on the street – the maths speak volumes. The system essentially works and, while each positive outcome can be calculated at around £150 in cash terms – the real, immeasurable, value is a priceless, restored, self respecting individual human being.
One particularly successful strategy that has been developed between The Big Issue Foundation and businesses is that of corporate placement – typically, this takes the form of a company allowing a vendor access to their premises to sell magazines, underwriting sales so as to guarantee a minimum volume (for example: 50 magazines a week), and exploring ways to offer training/mentoring. This is the scheme that helped Joel, friendless, penniless and homeless after moving down to London from Scotland, to sell The Big Issue in law firm Freshfields’ staff canteen, find a short term job placement and then, on his own merit, land a permanent job in the firm’s billing department.
This may be the 21st century, but our society remains stubbornly riddled with male chauvinism from top - ask yourself how many women ministers there are in our “mother” of parliaments – to bottom: dispossession and isolation render homeless women (up to 15% of rough sleepers) in particular, exceptionally vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse. Service brokers like Tom can put individuals in contact with organisations according to their specific needs – viz: the homeless person who received a computer from Women of the Year Foundation to study on a network training course. But, as Joel pointed out, the Big Issue’s corporate placement initiative is of particular use here to women, because it can go further than service brokers by providing – as Matt Rees, a partner with Simmons and Simmons puts it: “a safe place for vendors to sell their magazines”.
Of course, not all the guests were big law firms – there were representatives of charitable trusts, smaller companies and a few private individuals. Neither is everybody nor every business in a position to help in the same way, and those present rose admirably to the appeal for initiative which was one of the key messages of the evening. One individual intimated that he would be interested in mentoring vendors; another vowed to actually take and read the magazine instead of merely giving cash to vendors - as had been his habit. Stan Burridge – a former vendor who now works with charity London Pathway, helping rough sleepers access appropriate healthcare – is going to investigate a potential newspaper advertising campaign.
Another attendee, Gordon Christiansen of RED BOX, plans to deepen his firm’s strategic partnership with The Big Issue. He hopes to build awareness amongst his staff “in order to develop fund raising programmes hopefully for many years to come”. Those who already contribute are considering innovative new ways to help, both large and small: Josh Spero of Spear’s magazine – is planning to do a Night Walk – I don’t know if he will carry a glowstick, but the odds are that Elliot will when he proudly launches the Big Issue’s Birmingham Wight Walk on 5 October! A number of people most insistently volunteered Big Issue Foundation’s CEO, Stephen Robertson, for a London/Paris bike ride (I think he had injudiciously mentioned to somebody that he was considering it)!
And it was Stephen who rounded off the evening with a short, impassioned speech, noting that, even though Britain’s glorious Olympic Summer has contrasted so vividly with last year’s tremendous eruption of bitterness, violence and anger, the number of people who are homeless – including those sleeping rough - is soaring ever higher. The situation is now “in many respects worse than when The Big Issue started 21 years ago”. Steve paid tribute to The Big Issue’s vendor “Olympians” and invited attendees to have their photograph taken with Joel holding... the Olympic torch (“I didn’t steal it”) that he carried through Newham on 21 July after being put forward by colleagues at Freshfields!
Now Joel, a charming and earnest young man whose personal journey exemplifies The Big Issue’s objectives so perfectly, is preparing for a try out to represent Belize (where he was born, and lived until he was four years old) at the Commonwealth Games in 2014.
Many guests commented that the Real Lives, Real Journeys event did what The Big Issue does best – allowing supporters and vendors to mingle and develop an appreciation for each other and, crucially, tackling the overwhelmingly negative image of people who are homeless by underlining how with “a few bad rolls of the dice”, any of us might start down the slippery slope to homelessness – a message hammered home by the presence of giant red dice either side of the speakers’ mic.
That a 1930s board game, the legend of ancient fire stolen from the Gods of Olympus, and our little light sabres of obscure and bizarre provenance (to me at least) are the weapons we chose to fight the Dark Side of homelessness at The Big Issue’s Real Lives, Real Journeys event, should not give cause for doubt, because the vision they illuminated was one of privileged people who – contrary to yet another stereotype - genuinely care and who are actively looking for ways to benefit the disadvantaged. And this, without seeking to condemn or pontificate – because the whole principle of The Big Issue is that it fosters – demands, even - self help and self respect from those to whom it proffers help. In fact, The Big Issue Foundation delivers non-judgmental support to individuals who are effectively micro entrepreneurs buying and selling The Big Issue Magazine.
Community Chest: Your poem has been published in the magazine. You have now shared the difficult life events that ended in you becoming homeless. This makes you feel lighter, better understood and relieved. You also got paid £10. As it happens, my poem really was published in the 24 September edition of The Big Issue – although I have yet to go and claim my £10...