Taking issue with the Big Issue

Published by Qmunicate Magazine, 9 April 2008

You've probably seen Jamie around. He sells the Big Issue on Byres Road, and whether you're heading for your eleven o'clock lectures, some shopping or a cup of coffee, he's probably the one you either walk straight past or give £1.50 and some small talk to. As far as Big Issue vendors go, he's quite eccentric – known for his leather jackets and his quiff – and he often seems less subdued than the students he's selling to. “Doing this job can be a laugh,” he says, wiping the rain off his forehead as we dodge a crowd of umbrellas. “But there is a certain input of ignorance in the west end, people can be quite patronising and ingenuine – they sometimes ask questions to be polite, but then don't listen to the answers I give. Selling the magazine can be good though, most people in the west end are friendly.”

It's around eight o'clock when Jamie sells his last Big Issue of the day, and after often twelve hours of selling, he catches the subway to something like home. He currently stays with a friend in Townhead; a grey, concrete paving slab of redevelopment near Cowcaddens, from which he commutes daily.

Jamie's life reads like a Hollywood script with the wrong ending. He was born and raised in the Drumchapel district of Glasgow, and left school when he was 15. “I think that so many young people from areas like that face a glass ceiling when it comes to education in their chances in life,” adding, “so I spent ten years travelling the world. I lived in lots of different places in Europe doing odd jobs, just making enough money to move on again – Munich, Istanbul, Morocco. It just became my life.” When he returned, Jamie then began studying for a degree in social and economic history as a mature student. “I was the first person in my family to go to university. Nobody suggested it, nobody expected it.”

However, when he was in his early thirties, he found it difficult to find real work, and spent years in low-paid jobs. But he shared a flat with his girlfriend, where they both paid their share of the rent, and he got by. Then one day, his girlfriend left to visit her family in Dublin, and never returned. At around the same time, Jamie's landlord wanted to redevelop the area and then let rooms out to the new Polish workers. “I didn't really mind,” says Jamie, taking a drag off a cigarette. “I've been a guest worker in lots of other countries so I know what it's like to come to a new place and look for somewhere to stay. So I lost my flat, and the rest is history.”

Jamie's been without a permanent home for over a year now, and he got the idea of selling from another homeless man. “Before I knew it, I had my own badge and it's a good opportunity, but selling the Big Issue should only be a stop-gap in between different circumstances. I know people who've been selling for fourteen or fifteen years, since the Big Issue began in 1991, but I'd feel very cheeky if I was still doing this for another five.” He's optimistic for the future, but admits that it's difficult to progress with so many barriers. “There are all sorts of obstacles, the main one being the lack of a permanent address, which immediately prevents you from getting beyond an application form for most jobs. No fixed address, no chance of a job; no job, no chance of a fixed address.”

“I've tried to find work in restaurants, hotels, but I'd much rather be learning again. Still, an address is needed by most educational institutions, which is why I've applied four times for teacher training. I think I'd be a good teacher because of my outlook and life experience. I'm not giving up,” he adds.

On our way down to the Tennents bar, Jamie greets another seller, and tells me that “there's no professional rivalry at all, all of us are in the same boat and have either temporary homes or live in hostels around the city. We help each other out where we need to.” The Big Issue sellers in the west end share a camaraderie, exchanging pointers on new housing incentives, job opportunities and occasionally, going out for drinks just as students do. “The only problem lies with,” Jamie adds, “the Romanian sellers.”

Jamie reflects a recent tide of disgruntlement which has been seeping into the change bags of Glasgow's local Big Issue sellers. Ever since Romania and Bulgaria entered the European Union in January 2007, a new demographic has crash-landed on Glasgow – and in this case, our Big Issue sellers are feeling its tremors. “They give the Big Issue a bad name,” argues Jamie. “They can't engage with the public because they don't speak a word of English and they're not local.”
Another Byres Road vendor added, “we try to take it up with the [Big Issue] office, but it's dismissed as racism. Political correctness? Political crap.”

As many people understand, the Big Issue serves to give local homeless people the chance to work themselves out of poor conditions, but as the Big Issue Scotland national sales manager Michael Luby describes, it's homelessness in general they are trying to find a solution for. “When the EU expanded its borders, in many ways they left us to pick up the pieces. Over 7,000 Romanians have arrived here in the past year. They expected the streets to be paved with gold, but they aren't, and a lot of them found quickly found it difficult to find a home, just like the local sellers did. In that way, the Romanians met our criteria, and nobody who meets our criteria will ever be turned away. If their only other options are begging or stealing, I'm proud that we've given them a chance.” But Michael concedes that the Big Issue has attracted negative publicity for doing so.

This isn't the first time the Big Issue has been vulnerable to criticism. In Oxford, there were around ninety registered Big Issue vendors – quite a large number for a relatively small city. For the local vendors, it was difficult to sell effectively because of the disproportionate number of sellers to streets to sell on, and they found this to the detriment of their own profits.

Michael also admits that there's an increased number of “blaggers with mags”, or fraudulent sellers, since the European enlargement. “This is something we work with the police on. We have an outreach team who check badges and who stop people begging whilst selling, which is against our rules. We have a very rigid code of conduct, but there will always be a minority of rogue sellers.”

Oddly, when Jamie was giving his interview, there wasn't a single Romanian seller on the street. Apparently, some members of the Big Issue's 'outreach team' had come to the west end to check badges that day, so a few of them hadn't turned up. “They didn't want to get caught. They'd been informed by someone,” claims Jamie. “By who, I don't know.”

In a largely depoliticised society where popular culture is more prone to discuss Pepsi v Coke than most wider issues, many people simply pop up their umbrellas to shelter from the drizzly political weather. But if you buy Big Issues – make sure you know exactly where the money is going, or else the meagre profits of many in “homelessness or vulnerable housing” kicked into the long grass.