I have been working with the homeless for many years, on the peripheral and also front line, always voluntarily and always personally.
Well many years ago my mental health was so bad that after a long spell of being unable to open my post, pay my bills and foolishly spending what small amount of money I had on ‘treating’ my daughter to make myself feel like a better mother, I became homeless with my young daughter. I was very fortunate to have a friend who let me sleep on her sofa and my daughter had a camp bed.
We were finally housed due to my mental health (thirty years later being diagnosed as bipolar!) and life went on, somewhat haphazardly, but I managed to just about keep a roof over our heads after that.
Being unwell I voluntarily worked for a women’s refuge run furniture warehouse, meeting homeless and those on meagre benefits and always felt thankful that I hadn’t ended up on the streets.
Fast forward thirty years and I am collecting clothing, tents, sleeping bags etc for the refugee crisis. Many of the items donated in North Devon were unsuitable or too bulky to be sent to the Greek Islands and to France where refugees in their hundreds were stranded.
My friends and I started giving out what was left and suitable to the local homeless. Once the refugee camps had been cleared from France it was harder to get aid to the places needed most and our concentration turned to the homeless living on the streets of North Devon.
We were based in Barnstaple. At this time I met two Big Issue sellers, Tony and Mark.
They were struggling, especially Mark who was living on the streets, to manage to afford to get to and from Exeter to collect the magazines the needed to sell each week to live.
Mark claimed no benefits and lived with his house on his back. He pitched up wherever he felt safe enough to each night, many a night not putting up his tent but sleeping in doorways and the local market. Every week he had to find not just the money up front to buy The Big Issue, but also the train or bus fare to get the magazines. I tried and succeeded for a while to get him a lift to collect the magazines, for which he was grateful, but it didn’t really last long. Living on the street makes ‘timing’ meetings for lifts is not always easy. He missed a few lifts and the arrangement fell through (not for the lack of the kind driver trying to help) as there were just too many hurdles.
I contacted the office in Exeter at this time to see if there was anything I or they could practically do, but the manager at the time was clearly overrun with everything he had to do in Exeter and without knowing the ins and outs of how the magazine and its distribution worked, I was unable to move forward with my wish to help. I continued to work with the homeless though, collecting clothing and camping equipment, providing food and a listening ear, with a team of other volunteers.
A year and a half later and I find myself with ‘time’ to spare. A new homeless Big Issue seller, Mark and Tony both having moved on to easier areas, contacted me with the same difficulty again. He couldn’t afford the train fare to get the magazines.
The battle commenced.
I read up about The Big Issue and was impressed with the amount of work they do that I just hadn’t known about. The outreach work and signposting, the savings scheme and lots of other help for the homeless and people in need was incredible, but none reaching rural North Devon.
Knowing I wanted to put my time into trying to get some of these resources into North Devon, giving the homeless that by now I knew very well in the area, a chance for the leg up that others have around the country.
This time, not knowing there was a new manager in Exeter, I contacted Head Office. I didn’t really have any idea what exactly I could do or how to go about it, but in April 2018 I spoke to Tony Churchill (or should I say I rambled because I didn’t really know how to do what I wanted to do and he must have wondered who he had on the end of the phone!) and he listened and we chatted about my frustration for the North Devon vendors and my wish to help. He was great, put me in touch with the new Exeter Manager Sarah Parkhouse and copied emails into everyone else that may be able to assist.
Within the week Sarah and I were drawing up some kind of ideas about how we could make things happen, and the Regional Manager Beth Thomas and Sarah both came to meet me in Barnstaple.
A few months later and we have a little pilot scheme running in North Devon, experimenting on the best way to work with rural areas.
This is our 10th week of running now. We have a small team of vendors who are working hard to take advantage of the opportunities they now have. No longer do they have to collect their magazines from Exeter, and despite having the expected teething problems, we are working hard to make selling in a rural area productive for the vendors at the same time of promoting The Big Issue here.
In just a few weeks we have made an enormous difference to lives here. Tony is back as a Barnstaple vendor again and Mark is looking at coming back around the area again to work around the North Devon coastline. We have a brand new additional vendor Paul, who is soon to be featured in My Pitch, also in Barnstaple , a new vendor Dave in Braunton and Norman our original Ilfracombe vendor being able to work more consistently now he can pick up magazines in Barnstaple. We have our original vendors in Bideford and South Molton and are now looking for new areas for vendors to sell the magazine. Vendors are permitted to sell on any public piece of land and so selling on High Streets is where the public are accustomed to seeing vendors. Bustling High Streets in North Devon are few and far between so we will be working towards asking permission of the larger retail parks to allow vendors to sell on their land.
Why do we bother supporting the vendors and trying to help them get better pitches? This story will tell you why.
Just before discussions began for getting The Big Issue brought up to North Devon, Dianne, who had been homeless in Barnstaple for a year and had recently been given a place in supported living, approached Sarah at the Exeter office asking about becoming a vendor in Barnstaple. This tied in perfectly with our plans and she began as a vendor in our first week of bringing the magazines to North Devon.
Within weeks she changed. She was proud of herself and locals who had previously bought her coffees and food were now buying her magazines and telling her how much more healthy and happy she looked. She was dressed to sell, her hair and make-up on and was feeling much more positive. Dianne even supported a potential new vendor to get going. She told him how many people were buying from her because they had seen her previously on the street in doorways and now she was working. Dianne told him ‘ For the first time in such a long time I am not picking dog-ends off the floor to smoke but can afford to buy my own tobacco’. She was proud that she had a little money in her pocket, could buy better food and she came to chat often about how she felt she had a future starting again.
By her fifth week she was increasing her sales and managed to sell just over 50 magazines the week before she tragically died. I had been waiting for her to collect her magazines for the week. Supporting people who live on the street, have a low income and feel frustrated at life is hard sometimes, but having the privilege of seeing Dianne change from homelessness to being a vendor, her smile and positivity, will always make working with The Big Issue worthwhile.