(This is an article
I wrote on a Media Production course in 1995.)
The Big Issue
There are an estimated 360 thousand homeless people in England alone. But whilst the recent political debate has concentrated on beggars and those sleeping rough in doorways, the vast majority of homeless people go unseen.
Lisa Trickett from Birmingham City Council's housing department explained: "A lot of homelessness in this city is hidden. People don't sleep in cardboard boxes - they tend to squat in warehouses or sleep around the canals. People think there's not really a housing crisis anymore, that homelessness is not an issue, but it is an issue."
So with 'hidden homelessness' on the increase why is the problem receiving more attention than ever before? One of the major factors in keeping the issue of homelessness in the public eye has been The Big Issue. It is now impossible to walk through Birmingham's city centre without passing several Big Issue vendors touting their magazine. From this intense street presence most people would be forgiven for assuming that these vendors represent most of the homeless population - after all, for every person sleeping in a Birmingham doorway, there must be at least two vendors, right?
Wrong. There are over 20 thousand homeless people in Birmingham and only 50 Big Issue vendors. But it's this vocal and demanding minority that ensures that the silent majority don't get forgotten. Mair Edmunds, the Midlands Coordinator for the magazine, believes that the visible presence of vendors on the streets has made a big difference:
"We highlight the plight of homelessness in the magazine and also bring the issues of homelessness to the forefront. Since The Big Issue's been going homelessness has become a very popular issue for politicians and for the media. That can only mean that the problem's being solved."
But The Big Issue does more than provide work for vendors and raise the profile of homelessness. Nationally, the Big Issue organisation runs 'The Big Issue Foundation Appeal' which provides training, housing advice and support to 'help homeless people help themselves'. Local branches also work with a wide variety of organisations to provide local services. One recent collaboration between the Birmingham office and City Council's Housing Department has resulted in the Birmingham Bond Scheme, which hopes to improve single people's chances of renting privately owned housing through setting up rent officers to act as guarantors for the tenants.
But despite The Big Issue's numerous links with other organisations and support schemes, it is still the magazine's public profile which is seen as its primary function. "The Big Issue's actually seen to be a very positive initiative within this city," Lisa Trickett explains. "I think as far as raising the profile of homelessness within the city, The Big Issue really does have a purpose. I think by actually having a visible presence on the street it does enable the profile of homelessness to be raised."
However, having such a high public profile can sometimes be a constraint. "There are certain members of the homeless community who, as hard as they try, can never overcome their problems and are therefore not really suitable to become vendors." explains Mair Edmunds. "The public expect a certain level of politeness and I think they're entitled to it. As soon as a member of the public sees one vendor drunk they associate it with other vendors, and unfortunately that means that those vendors are losing their sales, so we can't allow it to go on."
Standing in the street, declaring themselves homeless, can also cause problems for the vendors. Blue sells the magazine outside Paradise Forum in the city centre. He's witnessed several demonstrations of hostility towards homeless people: "It's the verbal abuse, then you've got your physical abuse, but the one thing I hate is the looks. That hurts more than anything, believe me." Sammy, who sells on Birmingham's New Street has a similar story: "You get a lot of hassle off people. The majority of people are nice, but you've got the minority who are a right load of bastards."
Apart from these isolated incidents, selling the magazine offers many homeless people a way to raise money and find somewhere to live. The Big Issue can provide hope, and a voice, to those finding themselves on the streets. But it is hoped that one day the organisation will no longer be necessary. Mair Edmunds summed up the magazine's long-term goal: "The ultimate future for The Big Issue is that it no longer exists. We must be the only business in the world who are trying to put themselves out of business!"
But in the meantime the campaigning continues. Every year new vendors come out from the squats and back streets of Birmingham and into public view, providing a powerful reminder that while they're there, the housing crisis is far from over.