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The Big Issue – a Toastmasters Speech (10)

Mr President, Mr Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters and guests: are you thinking that I don’t much look like someone who’s homeless?  You are right of course I’m not.   If I’d been selling on the streets today I’d probably get the same look that I gave to a Big Issue Vendor in Wales a few years back.  He was dressed in a three piece pin striped suit.  When I said no thanks, he smiled back and the glint of sunlight that gleamed off his gold filling nearly blinded me.

I was disgusted!  Mad indeed!  How dare this guy profit to this extent from selling the Big Issue?  Hands up if that thought or one like it has ever crossed your mind?  Do you know what …? I need to scratch that itch!  So I looked again.  I don’t know his story but let me share with you three others.

Joan is 51 and works in Glasgow.  She became homeless when she lost her eyesight to a degenerative disease.  As her eyesight worsened she could no longer work as an artist and lost her home unable to pay the rent.  It wasn’t always like this she once had a house in the country with two dogs.  Now she sings songs by the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra while she sells the Big Issue. 

Andy is 57 has been working at Southampton Central for three years, he knows the area really well and willingly directs people to get to where they want.  It wasn’t always like this.  He joined the forces as an airman, worked his way up the ranks became a sergeant with 60 staff.  He was married with 2 children when his third child was born with a deformed heart and died two days later.  He couldn’t handle it.  Now, grateful for his life back Andy wants to teach people how to sell and give them the confidence to get their lives back on track.

Marcel is polish and is 26.  He has had a pitch in Weymouth for two years.  It’s a pleasure to exchange my £3 for the magazine with him. Weymouth retailers could learn a lot from his customer service.  It wasn’t always like this.  He came to Weymouth on the promise of work at New Look’s distribution centre. They had temporary accommodation provided on the outskirts of town.  He became homeless shortly after he arrived when New Look announced they were moving to Doncaster and he was made redundant.  Now Marcel is learning English and is delighted to practice with you.

Three stories from three people who are not that much different to us – blighted by an unfortunate turn of events that changed their lives.  Imagine just for a moment, losing your sight, your child, your job and that it is you out there this Christmas flogging the Big Issue for 3 quid a go instead of sitting in front of the fire, laughing with your family and friends after a Christmas feast.

Big Issue Sir? Big Issue Madam? Big Issue Sir?

The Big Issue turned twenty this year.  In 1991 the year of the last UK recession there was a rising plethora of homeless begging on the streets of London.  With the belief that solving the problem of homelessness lay in helping people to help themselves, Gordon Roddick (the body shop) and John Bird gave birth to The Big Issue, offering a legitimate alternative to scavenging, begging, or stealing.

The Big Issue is not a charity.  It is a social enterprise.  This means it needs to trade to generate an income.  Therefore it produces a weekly current affairs magazine which it sells to the public for £3.  (Incidentally it has one of the most difficult sodukos I’ve ever encountered.  I am sure it beats most of its 670,000 readers every week.)

I digress; Vendors may buy the magazine for £1.50 and sell to the public for £3, grossing £1.50 for themselves. To ensure its legitimacy, all vendors receive training, sign a code of conduct and can be identified by photo id.  In this way, The Big Issue offers the homeless ‘a hand up, not a hand out’.  Indeed, you could say that it is a capitalist solution to the gap in the social security system.

Selling the Big Issue is the first step.  It’s not that easy.  Let me put this into perspective.  The minimum wage is £6.08 per hour.  Let’s call it £6 for ease.  To achieve that the vendor would need to sell 4 copies of the magazine per hour.  If he worked a seven hour day that would mean selling 84 copies per day.  That’s 144 copies for an average working week.  The average number per vendor is 22 …. A week!  It’s not lucrative and it’s not easy.

Big Issue Sir? Big Issue Madam? Big Issue Sir?

Christmas is just round the corner.  It’s dark, wet and cold for more hours in the day than not.  I’m not asking you to go out of your way to buy a copy but since there is a very good chance that you will be in town at some point in the next few weeks …  I’m asking you to not avoid this salesman.  Walk right up, smile and swap your three pounds in your pocket for a magazine with a seriously difficult soduko!  Yes there may be the odd vendor who abuses the Big Issue opportunity but do you wish to tarnish with the same brush all those who really do want a hand up?

So …  will you? 


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