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.'

Homeless man

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 recycled paper.

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: and would like to receive information about grassroots action.

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