Wellcome Trust

3 extraordinary hours: your pitch, someone else’s patch: Chris Newstead, The Wellcome Trust

Alongside a dozen colleagues, I approached a day’s volunteering on the Big Issue with a mix of trepidation, curiosity and enthusiasm.

To be honest, I didn’t quite know what I was signing up for, but I wanted to grab the opportunity to get out of my comfort zone (the office) and do something practical to support someone who’s ended-up homeless.

Like every resident and commuter in London, we are familiar with pavement life. Marketers pushing charity sign-ups, gym flyers and newspapers into our begrudging hands. A free can of drink once in a while as you pass through Victoria, helping to even out the injustice of receiving all that bumf.

Mixed in we also pass by those at knee level, begging for a living; occasionally acknowledging them with a cursory smile and even less frequently donating some change.

And then, amongst them all, there are the red tabard wearing Big Issue sellers – some 300-600 of them at any one moment, scattered across our capital.

Most of us will have bought a conscience-appeasing copy at some point, or better still have committed to a regular purchase. We’ll have had a bit of banter and occasionally struck up a more everyday relationship-in-passing.

But, what about actually stepping onto their patch and selling the magazine yourself? A bit weird, right? I mean, you’re not homeless.

Well, first up we met Steve. He is homeless, and has been since 1996, and selling the Big Issue for the last 7 years. A pro taking us onto his patch. We listened to his story. And then to his advice. All the while the penny slowly dropping that we weren’t his support crew for the day. We were going to be selling directly: his magazines that he’d already invested in at the Covent Garden distribution point at £1.25 a copy.

I can empathise for England, but it wasn’t until I actually stood on St Martins Lane with a dozen Big Issues in my hand that I felt it. It being the reality of the situation. The aloneness. The pressure. The vulnerability.

And then I began to feel my identity being tugged away from me. And then I wanted to shout out…

So I did.

“Post-digital content! When the wifi goes down you’ll be pleased you bought a copy!”

Well, it amused me and got me going. I’m not sure that particular line led to any sales but I was now at least engaging with the punters. Every single face a potential sale, every one worth an interjection, a smile, another bit of patter. “Only £2.50 for the pretty ones! Yes, I’m looking at you, sir!” “A hand-up, not a handout!”

And I carried on like that until mid-afternoon. Steve returning every 20 minutes or so with a nod of approval – and best of all a 99 with a flake, when I was starting to flag. A homeless man buying me an ice-cream? Neither of us could have been more pleased.

And then, for me and my colleagues, 3 hours was the limit. Aching feet, aching arms, weathered faces and frankly people-exhaustion. For those of us who did shift some ‘books’ every sale had been like a way-point on a mountain climb – a moment’s elation and then carrying on up.

One of us sold nothing at all outside Fortnum and Mason, most of us pushed half a dozen copies in total, and someone manage a couple of dozen sales outside the National Portrait Gallery. (All about the generously-spirited bohemian footfall at that location we concluded – surely their patter was no better than ours?!)

On reflection, it was a little bit like undertaking one of those sales tasks in an early-series episode of The Apprentice. A huge buzz from being dunked in the deep-end. And with it, lots of raw emotion.

Once we’d given Steve all our takings, we walked back with him to Covent Garden and said our goodbyes, whilst he invested in another handful of magazines. His day wasn’t over, mine was.

But my experience will live on. Humbling, eye-opening, exhilarating, and above all humanising. People are all right, you know.

(Oh, and I almost forgot! We did get to meet Bob. Not sure what the secret is behind his winning pitch though and he wasn’t telling. But fair enough. He is a cat.)

The Big Issue – Anusha Everson, The Wellcome Trust, July 2016

I decided to go on a Big Issue blind date. I was excited and curious. I realised it would place me out of my comfort zone. I mentioned my date to a couple of close friends. One said ‘that’s brilliant, go for it!’ and the other ‘you’re brave’. Excitement now shifted to apprehension but the potential that it be something that made a difference, drove me on.

On the day, I dressed casually and comfortably. The agency took me across to themeeting point. There were a few other matches going on at the same time and I scanned the faces wondering who’d be mine. I was not sure what I expected but there were lots of smiles, enthusiasm and welcome from all around me. Already perceptions were starting to fade away.

I hadn’t spotted him in the hustle and bustle around me; then suddenly my name was called. ‘Anusha, meet Bernie.’ You’re with him for the day. He looked friendly enough. ‘Morning, Bernie, I’m happy to meet you’. We shook hands. It didn’t feel awkward but made us a team. ‘I thought I’d take you to Seven Dials’ said Bernie ‘it’s my patch for this afternoon’. I smiled back and so our time began.

We walked along the busy London streets he knows so well. No odd pauses; just Bernie telling me about his job.

Our paths to this point might have been different but it dawned on me that we had more in common than I’d ever imagined possible…human, need to be respected, a wish to be valued, a want to have security and a drive to be independent.

We stood together. We stood apart. He looked across the junction would now to check I was OK. Me doing OK? I have a regular job with decent pay, I knew where home was tonight, my fridge was stocked up, my confidence not cracked and I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. Sure, I was more than OK.

And him? He was resilient, thoughtful, happy that I was there ‘to help’ and grateful I was trying to see his world. ‘It’s not about the number you sell’ he said. ‘Some days are slow and others make up for the slow days’. Good I thought ’cause my numbers have not even begun and I’ve been here nearly an hour. Even slow days I felt would be better if people say ‘hello’ and made eye contact. I didn’t judge those who didn’t deliberately see me or buy from me. It wasn’t my place. As with Bernie, I didn’t know their story.

We stopped for coffee half way; a chance to talk more about each other’s lives. For someone who has experienced such challenge, he was still willing to share.

I am not a sales person but I so wanted to sell a lot. It was no longer about my sense of pride but about helping him to hold on to more of him.

Before I knew it, it was time to head back. I got the biggest ‘thank you’ from Bernie. I didn’t feel I had done much but I knew it meant a lot to us both.

To me it was a date but for him, his life; not because he didn’t work hard or hasn’t been wise; just because. My number, that wasn’t significant but meeting Bernie, that imprinted. The things at the start of my day that felt like a big issue changed with the passing of minutes and as I walked a different path to my home for the night, I definitely understood better what the Big Issue is.