As the homeless population continues to grow, society must move beyond stereotypes that denigrate and marginalise some of the most vulnerable in our societies
London has much to offer those who venture around the city. However, lurking beneath London’s shiny and consumerist exterior is a problem that continues to be swept to the sides of the pavements. Homelessness is an issue so prevalent in London that the majority of the population seems to have become desensitised. The sight of a homeless individual struggling to seek shelter from the elements no longer shocks us.
There are many people begging for money, and far more who are skeptical about the sincerity of such individuals, fearing money given away will be used to fuel drink and drug habits. Often these beliefs extend even to struggling vendors of the respected street magazine, the Big Issue.
Homelessness goes beyond the stereotypical image of a man with a blanket on a street. It is often hidden: many squat where they can, while others sleep in friends’ bathtubs to avoid cold winter nights. And homelessness can come about through a variety of different ways, the ease of which is rarely appreciated. The response of society however, has been to ignore the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society, resulting in a homelessness boom in recent years.
The future seems bleak to those living on the streets. They tend to operate on a survival basis and have little time for enjoyment, having slipped through societal cracks with no one to turn to for help. Homelessness is a growing problem in our society, and wider social perceptions of the homeless individual are part of a dehumanising narrative that continues to manifest in many different forms. The killing of two Big Issue vendors in January this year – Wayne Lee Busst, 32, and Ian Watson Gladwish, 31 – projected the issue of homelessness into the spotlight and back into our consciousness. But for how long?
The Big Issue has done incredible work since its formation twenty-two years ago by John Bird and Gordon Roddick. The Big Issue Foundation aims to tackle homelessness partly through the production of a magazine that vendors purchase and then sell to the public as a source of income. Whereas previously it was specifically for homeless people, it has now been opened up to people on low income, thus aiming to help those most at risk of becoming homeless. The work does not stop at providing vendors with a magazine to sell. Set up in 1995, the foundation now works exclusively with vendors, offering advice and referrals in four keys areas: housing, health, ﬁnancial independence and aspirations. It goes further than offering struggling individuals handouts, and works to help integrate vulnerable individuals back into society.
There is often a misconception that Big Issue vendors do little more than beg. What is often not realised is that the Big Issue operates on a ‘no sale-no return’ policy. Vendors purchase the magazine for 50 per cent of the cover price, which they must then go on to sell to the public in order to see a return on their money. Any unsold magazines result in a loss of profit on the vendors’ part.
There is no one more apt to show how much of an impact the Big Issue can have on an individual’s life than Kelvin Gregory. He is the perfect embodiment of the Big Issue ethos and is a Big Issue vendor unlike any other. At 51 years of age, he sells the Big Issue outside Somerset House on The Strand. Despite Kelvin’s situation, you quickly learn that he is not the one to be pitied, attacking life with the same positive energy and selflessness that many of us aspire towards. Despite the harsh weather conditions he must often endure, coupled with the cold and often unfriendly glances of members of the public who fail to acknowledge his presence, Kelvin perseveres in giving his life direction.
Kelvin’s homelessness was the culmination of a failed relationship, exemplifying the ease at which it can occur. The Big Issue has had a very big impact on his life, teaching him a good work ethic, budgeting and allowing him to expand his communication skills. The street magazine has helped improve his life skills and made him more equipped to deal with the working world. For Kelvin, the Big Issue provides good income and a medium for meeting new people, whilst also helping him avoid having to sign on. He prides himself on not having signed on for five years and refuses to, despite being eligible. He puts the needs of others before himself saying that there are other people who are in more desperate need of the money such as families with young children to provide for.
Despite all the great work of the Big Issue, Kelvin believes the publication should go back to being a campaigning magazine, as it was years ago. Kelvin believes that there are enough magazines out there that concentrate on providing eye candy, or a source of escape. Rather than being overtly commercial, the magazine needs to have the courage to change direction and combat the neglected issues that exist in society.
Kelvin does not approve of the Big Issue’s slogan, “Working not Begging”, which is pinned to his jacket just below his ID badge. He believes that a much more suitable and fitting slogan would be “Working for a future”, as the Big Issue is a stepping stone in helping many people back into work.
The current homelessness landscape is undergoing vast changes. The streets are now filling up with a greater number of females from ethnic minorities and young people, unable to cope with the financial crisis. Many young adults who have lived their lives in care homes reach the age of eighteen and are left to face life alone with no continued care or support structures available. The Big Issue has contacts with the social care industry such as Shelter and Crisis, which means they are in an excellent position to help those who have often been forgotten and disregarded.
The Big Issue does wonderful work but it is a financially independent organisation and thus relies on the generosity of public donations. Although the deaths of the Birmingham vendors Busst and Gladwish was a deeply tragic occurrence, it highlighted homelessness in a political landscape where many vulnerable people have had their claims to social welfare delegitimised.
If there’s one thing that you do, smile at your Big Issue Vendor, stop for a chat and buy the magazine. You may not be able to tackle homelessness all on your own but you can be the difference between whether one person gets to eat that night or not. And if you ever need a pick me up, take a trip down to Somerset House on the Strand in the morning hours and you will be sure to find a ray of sunshine in the form of Kelvin Gregory.
Image Credits: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturenews/9857757/Big-Issue-Sellers-Are-Something-to-Shout-About.html
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