I came across a trust fundraising volunteer post at The Big Issue Foundation (TBIF) by fluke, when I was looking for summer jobs. I did not know much about The Big Issue at all but was frantic about the rising levels of visible homelessness which, as a Londoner, I was witnessing on a day-to-day basis. There is a wall of ignorance surrounding homelessness, even for well-intentioned people. My main reason for applying was to learn more about the situation, and perhaps to plug myself into some of the networks which are actually doing something about it.
To say that these hopes were fulfilled would be an understatement; after being welcomed warmly to TBIF’s offices I was given a whole range of tasks which introduced me to many facets of the organisation. The first step was learning the difference between The Big Issue magazine and the Foundation, and the importance of this! Through the magazine, vendors retain dignity and independence through self-employment, but the Foundation links them in to an essential network of support and advice that people who are homeless are routinely excluded from and can find hard to navigate. Quite quickly I felt more comfortable about acknowledging Big Issue vendors, knowing they were not expecting me to help them but, on the contrary, conducting a business.
I hadn’t previously understood that the two most demeaning issues for those who are homeless are not lack of food and shelter, but dependence and exclusion. TBIF makes a point of talking in terms of those who are “socially excluded” as this lies behind what we see as homelessness – whether rough sleeping or vulnerable accommodation or employment. Now having slightly greater understanding, I no longer concentrate helplessly on how awful it is to see people on the streets. Rather, I’m more aware of individuals, all of whom deserve respect first and foremost but have different forms of vulnerability. This is not always as obvious as scruffy clothes and begging.
Working on records from Foundation project “Sales and Money Week” I came to understand how simple practical issues can deprive vendors of their independence. TBIF opens up a whole host of opportunities: from financial advice workshops and setting up bank accounts, to counselling and English Language tuition. The Foundation works with each vendor individually, so in my research I was reading about real people and their stories – not just statistics. I had the eye-opening experience of working at the front desk for a morning, selling magazines to vendors, distributing badges and chatting. Vendors take their professionalism seriously. One of the greatest public misunderstandings is that giving money and not taking the magazine will do just as well as actually buying the magazine, which completely misses the point.
Meanwhile, through fundraising research, I did learn a huge amount about the facts. Charities – rather like homelessness – often remain hidden apart from a few overt manifestations. This insight showed me just how much is going on behind the scenes and how much society relies on the consistent work of a network of impressive (often small) organisations. The impression I had was realistic, but optimistic. There are greater numbers of people than I’d imagined experiencing forms of homelessness, seeking asylum or struggling with poverty, without support. There are also many organisations trying to offer a “hand up”, and it was exciting to feel part of this wealth of activity. I’m about to start university and am hoping very much to continue my involvement. I’m certainly going to go and say hello to all my local vendors!