Help for those who've earned it.

2 September 2015 Alan Attwood

Help for those who've earned it.

Pat sells The Big Issue in Perth

I bumped into a former Big Issue vendor recently; a man I hadn’t seen for some time. He once told me about a place where he’d been squatting, tucked away inside a busy railway station. Later, he spent some time in prison. It worked out well for him: he didn’t have to worry about his next meal or where he’d be sleeping. When I asked how he was doing the other week he was somewhat evasive, though I sensed things weren’t great. Later I learned he’s been begging. This struck me as a great pity, and not just because begging is illegal in the city where he lives. This is a man who can be engaging; a character. He was once part of The Big Issue community. Now he hopes for handouts.

From what I see and hear, the number of beggars is increasing. There are myriad reasons for this; one is the fact that many people are prepared to part with some change on their way past. I see it most mornings – commuters ignoring a Big Issue vendor, with their small stash of magazines, then pausing to give money to, or chat with, a beggar. As Julius Sumner Miller used to ask: why is it so? Why ignore a person trying to improve their circumstances, a person who is working, in favour of somebody passively seeking change? I applaud the generosity of those helping beggars, as well as the concern they express, but it’s misguided. Big Issue vendors are proudly not begging; they have a job. Also, they are proud of what they do and proud of what they sell – though never slow to tell me if they think I’ve made the wrong call on a cover.

All around Australia our vendors compete on streets with beggars and charity tin-shakers. The latter are more in-your-face than Big Issue vendors. Sadly, though, our salesmen and women are lumped in with the others by people who don’t want to be distracted or disturbed by anyone. I understand that. But I also suspect that one reason for people bypassing a vendor to help a beggar is, essentially, ignorance of what we do. The Big Issue is now into its 20th year of publication. Yet still people ask me what it is. Or say: it’s that political magazine, or that religious magazine, or that lefty magazine. None of which, of course, are true. If you’re reading this, you know that already. You can assist by (politely) setting people right when they get us wrong, or simply explaining our reason for being: to assist those who sell the magazine by offering a job, a boost to their self-esteem, a sense of purpose and belonging. For those who feel isolated or on the margins of society, the latter is especially important.

There’s a bloke I see around town– not the former vendor I mentioned earlier – who confronts me, and anyone else he can stop, with a hard-luck story about needing money for a room. He’s been telling the same tale for years. We once had an economic debate when I ask if he’d considered selling The Big Issue. He had, but reckons he can earn more hitting people up for money. Sadly, he may be right. In a perfect world, of course, we’d see no beggars and no ‘chuggers’ on the streets. We’d be out of business, too. But it’s not a perfect world – as cover-star Russell Brand (see, I have finally got to him) makes clear in his film The Emperor’s New Clothes, which tackles inequality. Meanwhile, though, there’s much you can do to help all our people. Continue to engage with vendors and buy the magazine. Then pass it on to others. I beg you to spread the word.

Alan Attwood, Editor

This article first appeared in Ed#492 of The Big Issue.