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The Big Issue of poverty

THE man waits patiently, barely moving, a stationary figure set against the hustle of one of the busiest corners in Canberra. With his head high, he exudes a quiet dignity. In one hand he holds a single magazine to the passing crowds, and remarkably the hand never drops or appears to grow tired.

He has been there for hours, yet few have stopped to buy a magazine.

The reasons probably vary. Too busy. No change. Not interested.

But they’ve noticed him. It’s hard not to when his uniform is a bright yellow amid the standard black and white public service attire.

His name is Eddie and he is one of many homeless or disadvantaged people who sell The Big Issue magazine, a worldwide program used for vendors to gain confidence, income and prepare for mainstream employment.

As Anti-Poverty Week came to a close last month, the Australian Council of Social Service issued a worrying reminder that there are over two million Australians living in poverty.

The Council classified people living in poverty as those who not only have low levels of income but who miss out on opportunities and resources that most take for granted, including sufficient health care, housing, education, and employment opportunities.

Organisations such as The Big Issue are trying to reduce the number of disadvantaged people living in poverty by offering them a flexible way to earn extra money.

People who work as vendors for The Big Issue come from a range of backgrounds including mental illness, long-term unemployment, homelessness, or intellectual and physical disability.

The Big Issue Program Manager Julie Evans explains that the program, which has been active in Canberra since 2004, offers numerous benefits.

“Most vendors are receiving government pensions, which doesn’t leave a lot of spare money,” Evans says. “The Big Issue provides extra cash they can do something with. But the other advantage is they build up relationships with their customers. For people who have been isolated or marginalised that’s a huge benefit. You can see them increasing in confidence in how they feel about themselves.”

The Big Issue has several distribution points around Canberra, where vendors buy the magazine for $2.50 and sell it for $5.00, pocketing the proceeds.

Ms Evans says the magazine has made good sales in the capital. “In the last fortnight we’ve sold over 2,000 copies,” she says.

A range of columnists and journalists donate their services to the magazine, with some contributions from vendors, who get paid for their work.

Evans says the community reaction to the vendors has been mostly positive; however there have been disconcerting experiences.

“Sometimes people say in passing, ‘Get a real job,’ as they walk past, which you’ve got to be a bit tough to cope with. One of our vendors who is in a wheelchair had his money stolen last year. But on the other hand, we’ve had a woman go into the Canberra Centre and buy one of our vendors some warm blankets on a cold winter’s day, which was lovely.”

Evans says there are many success stories, including one vendor who was sleeping under the bushes in Glebe Park before becoming a vendor for The Big Issue. “Now he’s got his own flat,” she says. “Just having stable housing has seen him settle down and you can see just how much better he is in life. Selling all those magazines has just given him a real sense of purpose and continuity.”

One of the magazine’s best selling vendors, Eddie Sharp, 43, had been unemployed for two years before working for The Big Issue, battling depression and living with his parents.

“It was really hard for me to find work because of the depression,” he says quietly. “Working for The Big Issue has helped my life. I’m now renting a place of my own.”

When I meet with Sharp, he reflects on the day he sold his first magazine. “You can’t really describe the feeling when you sell that first magazine. It’s a huge confidence boost,” he says with a shy smile.

Standing outside in Canberra’s bitterly cold winters doesn’t faze Sharp either. “I work five hours a day, seven days a week, no matter what the weather is,” he shrugs, matter-of-factly.

True to his word, a few weeks later I see Sharp standing on that same corner in the rain, holding up a magazine with his customary statuesque stance. I notice a few people stop and buy a magazine or chat to him.

I realise, with some irony, that he is probably more dedicated to his work than most of the well-paid public servants that walk past him every morning.

His story goes to show that it may take people a while to escape the grasp of poverty, but it can be done.

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