The big issue with The Big Issue

Posted by Alexander Hay

Twenty years on, has it really changed anything?

Homelessness is still a problem in the UK

Twenty years is a surprisingly long time. Who would have believed that by 2011 we'd still be ruled over by Old Etonians or that a magazine sold by the homeless would still be both needed and selling?

In that sense, then, The Big Issue, which is celebrating its 20th birthday this year, has been a failure – a country with little or no homelessness would have no need of it.

In other ways, however, it is a success, bringing the homeless into the public spotlight and providing a means for then to support themselves.

Nonetheless, its success remains mixed. Homelessness remains a problem though instead of the large numbers of rough sleepers who were all too common in 1991, the nature of homelessness has become more complicated.

The vast majority of homelessness nowadays is in the form of living in temporary accommodation, with almost 50000 households in this situation.

Fewer than 10,000 people, meanwhile, were given government aid for being homeless in the traditional sense, though Crisis claims in excess of 2000 people on the UK mainland sleep rough every night.

The Big Issue may be keeping some of these people alive, but those who get off the streets are soon replaced by others.

There have been controversies too, in part because the notion of homelessness is so hard to nail down – does an adult count as homeless if his only bed is his parents' sofa?

Then there is the matter of whether the Big Issue's remit should include recent immigrants like East European Roma. Should it instead focus on the 'traditional' homeless and let other agencies help the Roma instead? While it claims to be helping them integrate, there is something akin to mission creep here.

The vendors themselves are some of the most varied groups of people ever assembled. I've bought the Issue off vendors who get surly if you tell them to keep the change, a vendor who churns out a never-ending stream of consciousness as his sales pitch (his patch is in London, Euston, if you’re wondering), the vendor who is 'co-promoted' by his hand puppet, a Polish seller who felt obliged to perform an intricate juggling manoeuvre with each copy he sold and a grimy yet evangelically eco-friendly vendor, stripped to the waist, who got into a long dialogue with me over GMO trees.

Thenn there are those 'vendors', not authorised by the Issue, who somehow get an old copy or two to sell (or in one case, what turned out to be a rolled up copy of The Spectator), usually for the one-time-only discount rate of £1. (The official price is £2.00 as of June 2011.) But is it right to feel conned under such circumstances? We're not the ones sleeping in a subway in the middle of December.

And besides, for a magazine about the homeless, it doesn't have too much of them inside its cover, other than two pages worth of input from the people who sell the magazine and are supposed to benefit from it. All too often, the magazine serves as a platform for a slightly more radical left wing politics (of the 'ethical' variety) than that courted by the mainstream. Is it right to use the vulnerable to promote this or any other political position?

Perhaps the very idea of the Big Issue is a contradiction. On the one hand, the homeless are being asked to 'help themselves out' and be self-sufficient, and yet the sales pitch has always been one of 'buy this because you feel sorry for me'. Is The Big Issue a media business masquerading as a charity or vice versa? Like homelessness, it is in fact a tricky question to answer.

Doubtless, some will say this is irrelevant. For many homeless people, there is, to paraphrase one enemy of the poor and vulnerable, no alternative. But as it enters its third decade, can The Big Issue still be considered a radical solution, or merely the means and wherewithal to stop our most vulnerable from just dying in a ditch?

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Alexander Hay

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