My name is Michael and I have been selling The Big Issue in Bristol for about 2 years now.
I’m from Leicester originally but in a classic boy meets girl story, I fell in love and moved to Bristol. It didn’t quite work out, but I fell in love with Bristol instead. There are some lovely buildings around and some great art galleries. But mostly it’s all about the people. The people are just very friendly and relaxed here – there’s a proper sense of community.
Somewhere along the way though I got in with the wrong crowd and I got mixed up with drugs. I ended up going to prison for 16.5 months. As soon as the judges hammer went down and I was sentenced, I immediately knew I wanted to turn my life around. I decided to use the time locked up to become a better version of myself. I spent the time studying and I ended up getting 19 qualifications including Level 1&2 Maths, English and IT and my Level 2 Information Advice and Guidance certificate. I was ready to be a better version of myself when I left prison.
After I completed my sentence, I had 16.5 months on probation but during that time I was given no support. They have a duty of care to help house you when you get out so they referred me to the Compass centre, a service that would find me somewhere to stay. But I wasn’t physically able to get to the centre in time to get a referral and I spent my first night out of prison sleeping rough.
The centre was then able to refer me to a night shelter however it was on a night by night basis so there was no security. You had no idea if you would have somewhere to sleep from one day to the next. Probation washed their hands of me because I was homeless. After the first month, almost all my connection with them was over the phone rather than in person. It felt like they did that so they never had to look me in the eyes and know they weren’t helping me.
Despite best intentions, I came out of prison and I couldn’t get a job. Not only did I have to contend with my criminal convictions but I was also homeless. No fixed address, no bank account, nothing.
I ended up going back to Leicester briefly because of the promise of a job working for a logistics company, unloading containers. But it was a last-one-in, first-one-out situation. I didn’t let it get me down completely but then my landlord said, “I don’t want anyone on housing benefit to live in my property.” I looked at him and said, “I’ve just lost my job and now you’re throwing me out.”. Once again, I was homeless.
So I came back to Bristol. My brother had been living here, but he’d moved, so I didn’t have anywhere to stay and had no local connection. I went off the rails for a couple of weeks. I didn’t know what to do. I ended up just sitting down and begging. Now honestly, you can get by begging. Financially I was doing ok. But mentally it was tough. People are constantly looking down on you, literally and figuratively. I felt so demoralised and I wasn’t the confident guy I used to be.
It would have been very tempting and very easy to go back to my old life. I could have been off the street in days if I had gone back to my old life but I wanted more for myself. I chose to do a year and a half of rough sleeping over going back because I wanted more, I believed I deserved more.
It was one day when I was sat down begging that someone from The Big Issue approached me and told me about becoming a vendor. I thought I may as well give it a go. My pitch ended up being where I had been begging so I knew the area and I was a familiar face to a lot of people walking past. I’d never done sales like this before and I felt so awkward when I first started selling.
I nearly quit in the first few days, I had actually been making more money begging. But as the days and weeks went on, I began to build up a customer base and see the same people regularly. When people started acknowledging me more, the human contact and friendliness is what kept me going. When I was begging I was sat down with my head down whereas now I could stand tall. People respect that and I began to notice people talking to me more. Hearing someone say something like “Good luck with today” made a huge difference.
I’ll admit my own naivety, before I became homeless and before I sold the Big Issue, I judged people in those situations. I was brought up to believe it was always their own fault. And what I’ve learnt is sometimes things are taken out of your control. I was stood there and it had happened to me. I know I’d made mistakes, I’d been to prison, but I’d tried to turn my life around. I had lost that job in Leicester through no fault of my own and here I was. I’ve learnt not to judge anyone. You don’t know someone’s life or circumstances by just looking at them. I realise that if I had that perception of Big Issue vendors, then other people would too. I knew I had to work to break down those barriers.
That first pitch was great and I got to know a few people but everyone was always in a rush. The Big Issue Foundation had been working with Network Rail and there was a pitch opening at Bristol Temple Meads station. They suggested I apply, and not only did I get interviewed for the station pitch but I got accepted.
I’ve been at the station now for about 9 months and it’s amazing. The station staff have treated me really well, like part of the team. I know the station inside out now and I know the trains. If people aren’t sure where to go I know what trains leave from what platforms and even know the schedules for some of them.
There are so many more people here at the station and it was great to have more customers but I found a lot of people didn’t have cash. The Foundation supported me to get a copy of my birth certificate which enabled me to take part in a contactless payment trial with The Big Issue.
Having everyone pay by card was challenging at first, I was so used to having instant money and now I was waiting several days to receive the funds but the Foundation was able to help me budget to get through the first week. Now I’m used to it and it’s brilliant to have the increased sales.
The Big Issue Foundation helping me to get my birth certificate has also enabled me to apply for a passport. In fact, we were just completing my application together today, so that should arrive in the next few weeks. I’ve never left the country before and it’s not something I’ve ever thought about but now that I’m beginning to be able to save a little I’m hoping to be able to go on a holiday abroad. One day I would love to be able to go to Thailand but for now anywhere would be an adventure. I’m thinking maybe Spain.
All of my customers are amazing and are helping me to progress not just financially, but personally too. It’s not just the sales, people stop and talk here too. There is one person who stops for 10 minutes every day and chats to me asking about how my day is going and how last night was. And that’s what means more sometimes than the money itself. They’re actually taking an interest to get to know me.
This human connection, I think it’s important for everyone. After a referral from the Foundation, this year I completed Peer Mentor training. Once I have more stability, I definitely want to work in mentoring and support, particularly in the youth sector. I never had anyone when I was young. I never had someone offer to take me to one side and help me figure out why I was acting the way I was acting. I think I could really help young people because I’ve been through it all myself.
Where I’ve come from, this is where my life went and I can ask if this is really where they want to end up in ten years time, having been to jail and homeless. I’m not ashamed of my story or my situation, I’m proud to be a Big Issue vendor but I think it’s better to prevent people getting into these situations in the first place.
I haven’t reoffended in nearly 6 years now. I’ve also been completely drug free since January of this year, so over 6 months now. Not only do I feel much better but I didn’t realise how much money I was spending. With all the money I’ve saved, I’ve discovered a new talent. I’ve really got into go karting. I save up so I can go once or twice a month as something I do just for me. I’m actually the 7th fastest at my track.
I’m sofa surfing at the moment but I know I can’t do that forever, I don’t want to. And in fact where I’m staying at the moment won’t be able to put me up for much longer so I’m not sure what will happen then. The Council have told me that because I have no local connections, they aren’t able to help me so the Foundation will hopefully be able to put me in touch with organisations that may be able to help.
The Foundation helps vendors get to where they need to be, it gives them support. When I was first on the street, I had nothing. Having a Service Broker who knows you and your story, that single point of contact really helps. But everyone in the office takes the time to get to know you. It’s a unique relationship where they are there for you and they don’t expect anything from you in return. It’s nice. A lot of people don’t have that kind of support in their life.
I was completely shut off and The Big Issue has helped me become myself again. I’ve found new things about myself and with the support of the Foundation I’ve been able to slowly go on this journey and find my own path. I’ve learnt to take small steps to create a strong foundation that I can build upon. It’s like I’ve started on the ground floor, I’ve built my way up and I’m almost there. I just need to get the roof on top to complete it.
Michael’s story originally featured in our Summer 2019 Newsletter which you can read here.
Photography by Magnus Arrevad.