I’m not as think as you drunk I am.

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.

Mixed messages in our society? Surely not.


About calneeagle

Volunteer at Doorway. Health care professional. Degree in sociology and politics.
This entry was posted in Alcohol, Homelessness and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to I’m not as think as you drunk I am.

  1. calneeagle says:

    I apologise if anybody read what was an unfinished draft that I published by accident a few hours ago.

  2. Blue Spice says:

    Food for thought – though I can’t help wondering if (as is to be expected) those people involved in Big Issue and homeless concerns are reading far more in to it than your average member of the public actually will. My opinions are only those of a member of that public and we do have a couple of BI sellers here – but if I hadn’t seen this article, I wouldn’t have given the matter of sponsorship a thought.

    As a nation, we are well used to sponsorship and how it works, and we see logos all over the place. Are we REALLY going to take that much notice of one on the tabards worn by BI sellers? Not because of who will be wearing them, but because we are so used to screening advertising out. We may be vaguely aware, possibly even capable of remembering which company logo we saw, but I doubt many will ponder the rights and wrongs of what that advertiser is actually selling.

    Personally, I think having a sponsor who is happy to be associated with a worthwhile cause like this, is a good thing. It somehow adds a little …hm……. normalcy? legitimacy?………… to BI as a “company selling a desirable item” rather than “merely” another good cause.

    I’m not doing very well at explaining what I mean, but the gist is that besides the sponsorship providing money for the tabards, I think it tells the world that here is a company who applauds what BI is doing and is proud to stand up and be seen working with the homeless.

    As for it being a wine company and the public perceiving sellers to therefore be alcoholics – no. One doesn’t assume that anyone whose work involves the wearing of a sponsorship logo necessarily buys personally from that sponsor, and neither would I think that Fairhills are supplying cases if wine to the homeless. And once the tabard is on, I very much doubt that BI sellers will give a second thought to what’s written on it.

    Well done Fairhills, and good luck to all involved with BI – be proud that a company is on your side, and pleased to show that to the world.

  3. calneeagle says:

    You make fair points, Anji, particularly about the possibility that those of us working (and/or living) ‘in the field’ see the issue as bigger than it is (pardon the pun). I also accept that we have all become used to blocking out ads. It took me a whole day to realise there was a Millwall-related ad in my Facebook sidebar, which should have been a red rag to a bull…

    However, those working in the field are unhappy about this, as I hope I brought out in my piece, particularly with regard to the vendors themselves. Perhaps the problem with the analysis is the conflating of two issues:

    1: The vendor may be an alcoholic in recovery, and the sponsorship may be upsetting for them. Then where does that leave professional footballers who play for teams who have alcohol sponsorship, such as the Chang beer sponsored Stabilo marker pen shirts of Everton? Where would this leave a latter day Tony Adams, Paul Merson, or Swindon’s Christian Roberts, who all admitted during their playing careers to being alcoholics? (BTW, in the course of researching, I have found out that Centrepoint is Arsenal’s charity of the season – well done them). An interesting piece here re the wider issues of alcohol sponsorship in football: http://www.thisisfootball.co.uk/your-view/should-alcohol-sponsorship-be-banned-in-football/

    2: The perceptions of the public that ‘all homeless are winos’. Here your point about the public having selective vision re sponsorship comes in. One specific point I would like to make here – if sponsorship doesn’t work for sales / brand profile, why do it, other than for tax relief? Also, I would say that you are discerning and intelligent enough to realise that the vendor is not personally endorsing the sponsorship – many people aren’t, sadly.

    As for your point about the sponsorship giving the BI ‘normalcy/legitimacy’; I think you have this the wrong way round. BI is being used to enhance the ethical credibility of Fairhills (who, to be fair, already seem to strive for ethical practice in other respects – although one could argue that ‘ethical practice’ in a capitalist business structure is only a matter of the relative degree of exploitation of the workers, and that the only true ethical model would be based on a workers’ collective, but that would be me stirring up stuff from my old Marxist student days, and not appropriate for this forum). So it is BI who are giving Fairhills legitimacy. And, in my opinion, damaging theirs in the process.

    Thanks for taking the time to contribute to the debate.

  4. Really interesting Martin. At first my thoughts were “grab as much money as you can from sponsors to help the homeless”, but then that is as a consumer with a self-righteous (I’m giving money) attitude. However, its true, we forget the reason why we buy these publications, i.e. to help people and yet the greed for money means that the very person we are trying to help, is in danger of having their dignity taken away.

    I also agree with the mixed messages, especially the “All you can drink for £10” we see across the country. I’m sure that there are more people within a mile of you with alcohol problems, that there are on all the streets of greater London.

    The difference is, that middle class suburbia hides it behind doors, calls it relaxation, and rebuffs rebuke by mentioning that it was “an excellent Chateau Chevallier 1985”

    Keep up the good work mate.

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  8. Andrew Davidson says:

    Good post! John Bird has lost touch with his roots and his core values, money corrupts. It’s on par with our local job centre threatening to take away a clients benefits unless he accepted a job in a pub, problem is, he is a recovering alcoholic!!

    Fairtrade alcohol, you give me money, and I’ll ruin your life and health in fair exchange.

  9. calneeagle says:

    So, finally, after all the debate, I am told by my BI vendor contact ‘on the street’ in London that the Fairhills tabards are coming in on July 1, without the option, and with a £15 deposit to be found first.
    Photos taken in one of their offices.

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