Cristina has been selling Big Issue North on the streets of Birkenhead since 2009.
“I like my pitch and I have known my customers for a long time,” she smiles. “They always ask about me and my children. They take care of me. I love selling the Big Issue North. I can decide when I want to work and look after my children when I need to.”
That is, until 2020, when the security of Cristina and 350 others like her was thrown off balance by the coronavirus crisis.
Stay home orders have meant furlough for many, a change of lifestyle for all. But for those who rely on passing custom on the streets of North England, being forced to move indoors means a complete loss of livelihood.
“The 350 people who sell Big Issue North are self-employed, buying magazines from our offices for £1.50 before selling them on the streets of the north for £3,” explains Fay Selvan, CEO of The Big Life Group. “This means that they are not eligible for furlough and, as they cannot work from home, homeless and vulnerably housed people across the north of England now find themselves without a source of desperately needed income.”
The organisation, she says, is doing what it can – in the first lockdown, it paid out an average of £500 each day to support vendors’ cost of living, from rent and bills for those in their own accommodation, to essential shopping and transport. In the second lockdown, they expect that figure to rise.
But whatever support they can offer, Selvan says, will do little to offset the timing of this second lockdown. “The lead-up to Christmas is usually vendors’ most lucrative time of year, with calendars to sell, more people out and about doing their Christmas shopping and the Christmas spirit breeding feelings of generosity. This year, however, without any way to work and with winter drawing in, it is set to be their most difficult.”
More than a magazine
Geographically specific to the North West, Yorkshire and the Humber, Big Issue North is one of a host of street papers supporting thousands of vulnerably housed and homeless people across the UK. In their region, Selvan says, the number of women vendors has quadrupled, from ten per cent in 2005 to 40 per cent this year.
Female vendors, she confirms, often face a different set of circumstances to their male colleagues. Domestic abuse plays a major role in many cases, with 61 per cent of the women selling the magazine classified as abuse survivors. These women are more likely to be homeless than male vendors – currently 40 per cent are without accommodation – while a staggering 94 per cent have no formal qualifications.
This means that the women selling the paper have fewer alternatives, with just 28 per cent believing they could soon move on to other employment.
Elanor, who sells Big Issue North in Huyton, is just 19-years-old. A single mum, and survivor of domestic abuse, she says that finding employment that allows her to also be around for her son is difficult.
“I have had a complicated life. I had a partner but he was using too much drugs and alcohol and he was beating me. I left him but then I found I was pregnant, and I went back to him and I thought he would stop because he was going to have a son. But he carried on doing the same, so I left him again. Then I met another man. He was lovely but his mum and his dad were very horrible to me. They were forcing me to make money and bring it back to them. I had to leave him as well and I went home to my mum and dad.”
Elanor, who grew up in Romania, speaks four languages and dreams of one day being a translator. But she says being a single mum is frowned upon in her culture, and supporting herself and her son has to take priority over education of training. “People will laugh at me and say no one wants me to be with me, especially because I have already had two relationships. They will say things like ‘She is a prostitute.’ I know most English girls my age, they study, they work, they have their dreams. But this is not the same in our tradition. I don’t like my culture, these traditions, but I cannot disappoint my mum and my dad. It is a struggle. My son is everything to me. I will raise him differently. I want him to go to school and finish his studies.”
For Daniela, a vendor who works in Liverpool City Centre, caring responsibilities also make the prospect of different employment challenging. “Selling the magazine is easier for me. If one of my kids is ill, I can go straight home. I don’t need to go to a boss or manager and explain what is happening. I’m also the type of person who likes to talk to people a lot and I enjoy selling the magazine.”
While lockdown has meant a change of lifestyle for many, for those who rely on their ability to sell magazines on the street, the order to stay at home is having dire consequences. Without alternative means of income to rely on, many are now at risk of losing the fragile security they have, and while Selvan says Big Issue North is doing all it can to protect its vendors, the organisation is running critically low on funds.
“We will do everything we can to support them through this incredibly difficult time, but we need help,” Selvan says. “We experienced an influx of new vendors when the first lockdown was lifted, and the bitter cold will lead to an increased need for help with bills. We were overwhelmed with the support we received from March to June and know that many will be keen to come to our vendors’ aid once again.”
A hardship fund has been set up to allow members of the public to donate funds via text message, while magazine sales have been moved indoors – in Big Issue North’s region, Sainsbury’s, McColl’s, Co-op and Booths are all selling the title, with subscription packages also available online.
The organisation has also created a Christmas shop, selling merchandise ranging from jewellery to homeware, made using recycled magazines. Here, supporters can also buy 2021 calendars, and bundles containing Christmas cards and tote bags.
Spending just a fiver might seen like a small act of kindness, but for vendors such as Kirsten, who usually sells her magazines on the streets of Liverpool, funding Big Issue North could make a huge difference.
“I have just moved into a homeless hostel but to be honest I’d rather be out on the streets than there. It’s a bit run down, the radiator leaks and, although you can lock the door, you hear the noises, the shouting and the screaming from other residents. The staff there are lovely, but I don’t drink or do drugs so it’s not my kind of place.
“But I have got a viewing on a flat tonight and it looks like I have somewhere to move in to, which would be ideal, especially after nearly nine months on the streets.”
Keeping an income going, or accessing support in the meantime, will be critical to Kirsten’s success in securing and keeping that home. Right now, she says, it is the idea of future security that is keeping her going. “If you don’t smile, you cry. I think of the bigger picture. I don’t think of the here and now – I think of the day after, the year after. I book in advance for my life.”
There are a number of ways you can help Big Issue North and the 350 people it supports. Purchase single editions of the magazine here or subscribe here. Shop the organisation’s Christmas gifts and calendars hereor text HARDSHIP to 70970 to donate £5.