DON DE SILVA
A voice for the homeless
Three years ago, Kris, aged 22, and his girlfriend, Lizzie, were homeless
and living in a cramped trailer with four friends and two dogs. Kris was
unable to get work because he suffered from a muscle wasting disease.
Then a friend suggested they become street sellers for the London edition
of The Big Issue, a paper which champions the cause of the
homeless. They earned commission on the papers they sold and, when Lizzie
became pregnant, the paper's Foundation helped them to find their own flat
through a housing association. The paper's Vendors Support Fund gave them
a small grant to buy furniture. 'If it wasn't for The Big Issue,'
says Lizzie, 'I'd be living in a horrible bedsit.'
Challenge to society
According to Tessa Swithinbank, who works on international coverage for
the paper, nobody likes to see people wrapped up in blankets and huddling
in doorways, but there is a general feeling of powerlessness. The Big
Issue challenges society's perception of the homeless. It contains
articles written by homeless people and reports on issues which are
ignored by the established media. With its sister papers in Scotland and
Ireland, it now has combined sales of nearly 1 million a month.
As well as the paper, The Big Issue Foundation runs a number of
other projects to help homeless people. Its cafe offers inexpensive food
and provides a place to talk. Its housing team helps vendors to find
accommodation. It provides training in creative writing and computer
skills and in sales techniques. The paper's Foundation has also launched a
micro-enterprise scheme to train and employ vendors in manufacturing
products and in design and marketing.
New legislation in the United Kingdom, which comes into force this year,
will hold supermarkets and other big companies responsible for recycling
their wastes. The Big Issue Foundation intends to take advantage of
this new law by training vendors in collecting, processing and selling
As a result of The Big Issue's success, street papers have
mushroomed in other countries. There are 60 different titles in 12
European countries, working with marginalized groups such as the
unemployed, drug addicts or refugees.
The number of homeless has rocketed in Eastern Europe. In St Petersburg,
Russia, over 50,000 people sleep under bridges, in stairwells and on the
streets. In 1994, Valeriy Sokolov, Director of the Nochlyezhka project for
the city's homeless, launched Eastern Europe's first street paper. The
Depths, named after a novel by Maxim Gorky, covers issues ranging from
human rights to off-beat culture. Its monthly print-run of 12,000 sells
out within days of publication. In most locations, the profits are
ploughed back to help the homeless.
Staff at The Big Issue Foundation know that street papers will not
in themselves solve the problems of the homeless. But the papers are
succeeding in creating alliances of homeless people and enabling them to
campaign for change.
Don de Silva specializes in communication and the environment. He can
be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
and would like to receive information about grassroots