What's it like selling the Big Issue? Community Chaplain Richard Hill shares his story.
Last year I befriended a Big Issue vendor when I gave him 10 I had found on my way to work. The vendor, Smudger, was delighted as it meant he would be able to afford his Big Issue jacket.
I have continued to talk to Smudger over the last few months and in that time he has been made the Big Issue vendor of the month, hes had his teeth fixed, and now has fixed accommodation. He had been living on the streets for 14 years. His life has been transformed through sheer determination on his part and he is now an ambassador for The Big Issue.
I have worked with homeless people for some years and had even taken part in a number of Sleep Outs to raise funds for local hostels. Smudger set me a challenge would I be prepared to sell The Big Issue for an hour and experience what it was like to be on the streets first hand? I put my decision off it was winter - but finally agreed to have a go at it.
The local Big Issue office gets business volunteers involved in this activity as long as they tell 10 other people.
So the day came, it was mid March. The weather was chilly, breezy and a bit overcast. I made my way to the Big Issue office with some trepidation. I did not know what to expect.
I was briefed and went through an induction with the local manager, Becky Mitchell. She explained that The Big Issue really wants potential vendors to move on in their lives and is able to sign post indivduals to accommodation, healthcare and general advice. Simple things like opening a bank account become a difficult task. You can only open an account with formal identification. If you have been living on the streets, it is quite likely you would have lost your birth certificate. The Big Issue subsidises people to buy a copy certificate.
The induction also supports vendors by helping them with a short and medium term action plan.
There I was, induction complete. Smudger was to be my mentor and he gave me kind words of encouragement and sales tips to set me on my way.
My pitch was just outside Birmingham New Street station. Smudger and Becky stood back and let me loose. I was a bit nervous to start with I wasnt really sure how to gear my sales speech. More advice from Smudger helped me on my way. I remembered to smile and wish people a lovely day.
I had expected to feel like a non-person and to a great extent I was. People walked by me and ignored me, they took a very important call on their mobile, there was suddenly something very interesting in the sky/on the ground/to the side. Some had a fixed stare ahead and would have walked into a lamp post if it had been there, others just made a detour an uneven path is better than having to confront someone selling The Big Issue.
In amongst the rejections were glimmers of love and hope. People talked to me, one gave me 50p and surprise, surprise; I managed to sell 2 copies! I was chuffed and Smudger said he didnt Id sell any.
By the time my hour had come to an end it was raining and my hands were cold. I felt elated I had sold The Big Issue! I handed over my takings 5.50 - 3 profit. This is somewhat less than the hourly minimum wage!
I got back to the office to reflect on my experiences, but the first thing I needed to do was to run my hands under a hot tap to warm up. No wonder Big Issue vendors are wrapped up so warmly.
It was an interesting and rewarding experience. It made me appreciate how important human contact is. A small and a kind word can go a long way. Being ignored can really knock your self esteem.
I have learnt that an acknowledgement in all situations really does go along way. Would I recommend the experience to others? - yes. It make you better appreciate what you already have and gives you a better understanding of people.
You dont have to buy The Big issue, but a hello and nod does make a difference. And if you are feeling brave, talking to the vendors is always stimulating you meet all sorts.
I also raised a small amount in sponsorship for The Big Issue Foundation about 50. I know this will be put to good use.
And if you didnt know, Big Issue vendors buy their magazines at half the face value they make 1.25 per issue. They also have to pay for their jackets. Successful vendors put in long hours to develop their social enterprise. This effort brings in regular customers who are likely to remain loyal.
And if you have ever thought you would never have to resort to selling The Big Issue, remember, none of us are more than 3 steps from becoming homeless ourselves.
A really challenging experience from which I have learnt a lot about myself and other people.