For those reading this from outside the UK (and a very few reading in the UK who may not be aware of it, so successful has the magazine been), the Big Issue is a magazine, founded in 1991 by John Bird and Gordon Roddick. It is now sold, not just in the UK, but also in 8 other countries. It, in its website’s own words, “exists to offer homeless and vulnerably housed people the opportunity to earn a legitimate income”. They “produce a weekly entertainment and current affairs magazine which vendors buy from us for 85p and sell to the public for £1.70, keeping 85p for themselves. Vendors must adhere to a code of conduct whilst selling the magazine” They “believe in offering ‘a hand up, not a handout’, but (they) also recognise that earning an income is the first step on the journey away from homelessness. The Big Issue Foundation is a registered charity which exists to link vendors with the vital support which will help them address the issues which have led to their homelessness”
So, an excellent idea, and excellent work being done. It is surely hard to find fault with such a good idea ………….
Well, maybe not so hard.
A fair bit of controversy has been caused recently by the decision of the Big Issue to accept sponsorship from Fairhills wine company to sponsor the vendors’ tabards. Although this fact was publicised because of the outraged reaction of one vendor in Bath, the tabards are to be used across the UK. The Big Issue said that without the deal it would have not been able to afford the tabards.
“We thought long and hard about this because there are quite negative sterotypes attached to homeless people – not just Big Issue vendors – around alcohol. However, Fairhills is a fair-trade wine company, they work with underprivileged groups in South Africa, and we think their ethos is not contrary to that of the Big Issue”
I do however note that the vendors’ code of conduct, as per the link above, takes account of the ‘negative stereotypes’ mentioned, and states: “I agree not to….appear to be under the influence of alcohol or controlled substances whilst selling or buying the Big Issue“.
The vendor who first complained about the wine sponsorship, himself an alcoholic in recovery, says in the BBC article: “They’re telling us, not asking us, to advertise an alcoholic product“.
Another Big Issue vendor said:
“We suffer enough in Bath as it is without stereotyping homeless people as drug addicts or drinkers, when we’re not. Now we’re going to be walking around with wine adverts, which is going to make everybody think we’re alcoholics“.
In the Big Issue edition of July 25th, John Bird printed a robust defence of the decision to accept the wine company sponsorship. He chose to read the attacks as accusing the Big Issue of an “insult to the recovering [alcoholic] vendors“, as well as a “betrayal of core values“. He goes on to say:
“The biggest temptation for homeless people with drink problems is to be found in the money they get for selling. That really is a big issue. It’s what warned people from the homeless sector off from working with us. They did not like the idea that homeless people would get their hands on money, which would then be passed on to Costcutters for cans and bottles. So they backed off from The Big Issue.”
He then goes on to say, to my mind, slightly petulantly, in an ‘I’ll take my ball away’ manner:
“If the aggrieved staff member is right about the tabards then really we should be rethinking the whole thing. And we should be stopping people from earning money. For as sure as eggs is eggs, some of that money will go on drink.”
He is, I feel, conflating the issue of the rights and wrongs of giving money to the homeless and marginalised, who might spend it on substances of abuse, with the issue of the implied endorsement by the Big Issue of an alcohol producer. And probably still working from a viewpoint that most if not all of the homeless and marginalised, including the vendors of the Big Issue, have, or have had, substance abuse issues.
The issue of how homeless people use money given to, or earned by them, and the widespread assumption of it being put almost exclusively towards the purchase of alcohol or drugs has been debated elsewhere. It is worth reading these two blog posts by Homeless Girl and the comments on them; ‘Should You Give a Homeless Person Money?’ and ‘Giving just food to Panhandlers….’.
My personal view regarding the endorsement of alcohol by the Big Issue is that it is a terribly misguided idea. Of course, the use of alcohol in our society is entrenched and respectable, when it is not being overtly (I use that word deliberately) abused. And of course, it is not as offensive or immoral (and indeed illegal) as if the new tabards were to say ‘Crack2U – 01225 000666’. But surely they should be taking into account, not just the general picture of increasing alcohol use and abuse and health consequences in UK society,
and also, in addition, the insensitivity of asking vendors to wear these tabards when they may have had alcohol problems themselves, will almost certainly know people who have, and probably have known people who have died from them.
But also taking into account the factor they have clearly, from the highlighted quote above, thought about, and then disregarded, the problem of the stereotyping of the homeless by the general public as ‘alkies and junkies’. The Bath Big Issue vendor quoted above also mentions this.
On Sunday, we were in Bristol at the Bristol Harbour Festival. As we shuffled through the crowds, I stopped to talk with a Big Issue vendor, a smartly-presented young Irishman, and asked him about the impending tabard changes. He was not at all happy about the new sponsorship:
“The public think we’re all alkies. We don’t all drink – I don’t drink. A few sellers sell when they’re pissed, and that’s bang out of order. They say this Fairhills lot are helping local people [it is true that Fairhills are committed to fair pay and working conditions, and are opening up an alcohol treatment centre in Cape Province, R.S.A.], but everyone knows they’re a wine company, and it just doesn’t look good.“
This point is a hugely important one to me (not that the other two points aren’t) – the perception of homeless people as alcoholics and drug users. It engenders and reinforces an ‘us and them’ attitude. If the homeless are seen as all having alcohol /drug problems, especially if the public see those problems as self-inflicted/ life choices/ lack of will power and not linked with underlying issues, and if they are not seeing addiction as disease, then the public can look down on them and feel that ‘they deserve it’. Deserve to have nothing, no food, no money, no shelter, no safety, no peace of mind. The homeless can be seen as sub-human, despicable, worthy only of contempt. To be treated like animals. Except that homeless animals in the UK often get a much better deal.
One more point. The ‘us and them’, ‘tramps are alcoholics’ attitude, can lead to a failure of basic logic, which says ‘alcoholics are tramps’, and therefore ‘I haven’t got a problem, I’m not a tramp on a park bench’.
In February 2009, DAN from the Wooster collective of graffiti artists noted:
“After the opening of a new multi-million pounds mall in the city centre of Bristol, all the areas around have been proclaimed “no street drinking zone” giving the homeless people and the local street drinkers no choices but to leave the area. As a result of this, the number of street drinkers is considerably increased in deprived areas where the drinking ban is not so strictly enforced”
Such as Brunswick Square in St Paul’s, where DAN created a large piece of work (below).
On the weekend, at the Harbour Festival, alcohol was very widely available, and people were free to drink in Queen Square, and walk between locations on the roads and pavements holding their drinks.
So, we have street drinkers, and street drinkers. I’m sure you can tell the difference from these pictures.