The Big Issue : Edition 513
6 20YEARSOFTHEBIGISSUE3–16JUNE2016 A PAID GIG, turning pro. That was the carrot when the idea of making a magazine for homeless people to sell was pitched to editors of and contributors to the University of Melbourne’s student newspaper, Farrago, in 1995. Oh, and being part of a good cause, of course. After launching in Britain in 1991, their Big Issue had ignited instantly to illuminate and help alleviate the UK’s very serious homelessness crisis. We sat around coming up with concepts for content and natty names for columns, still wondering just who would sell the magazine. But when Australia’s Big Issue launched on 16 June 1996, a few pioneering vendors had stepped up to sell it on the streets of Melbourne. If we had not previously noticed them on our shared streets, we soon noticed them in the shared office space – a bluestone mausoleum with Gothic arches and an ivy-filled courtyard. Their cigarette smoke would drift up into the office, along with their laughter or quarrels and the barking of their dogs. They’d heap sugar into their instant coffee and come over to peer at us proofreading, having a sneak peek at the next Weldon cartoon and asking, “Do you think this thing will keep going?” We didn’t know. But as they chatted away to us on deadline, carried on harmlessly and left the doors open that freezing winter, they filled the project with life and brought another kind of warmth. By far the largest and loudest presence was Louis, soon to be a fixture on trendy Brunswick St, Fitzroy – but also selling at the tram stop outside our old stamping ground, Melbourne University. A tough sell, with students notoriously poor and a suspicion that any magazine waved around there could be socialist or religious. With his South Bronx accent, fuzzy ’fro and maxed-out spruiking, Louis clearly had plenty of front, but also plenty behind him. Maybe if people knew more about him, they would buy more willingly... “Nuh,” was the initial response to proposing a page with vendors’ life stories. And to be fair, it was hectic enough trying to get each edition out without anything new on the plate. After a bit more nagging, a pictorial ‘Vendor Portrait’ did appear in Ed#4, featuring the black-and-white photography of early stalwart Ilana Rose. It was unsubtle, maybe even tactless, to publish a written portrait of Louis in Farrago, but his uni sales rocketed and vendor portraits had made their case for inclusion in The Big Issue. A few words accompanied Ray’s photo in Ed#14, and by Ed#18 I was forgiven for the Louis incident and started the first of many hundreds of what would become our regular Vendor Profiles – glimpses of people viscerally present to this day. When a vendor buttonholed me in the office one day and said, “Can you leave out what I said about sleeping under that bridge; I don’t want everyone rocking up there,” the reality of homelessness and exclusion really struck home. As it did again when “Dancing Man” Bill revealed that his downward spiral started with the financial consequences of a car accident that anyone could have had. Their stories bridged a comprehension gap that none of us were free of at the start – that homelessness or long-term disadvantage takes many forms. From couch-surfing to insecure rentals to boarding houses to sleeping rough. From exclusion due to disability or addictions or chronic unemployment or histories of violence and separation. And that the slide into disadvantage can be capricious and instant, with none of us immune. Readers have responded with great kindness to profiles, in some cases employing vendors in former trades, or fulfilling simple goals expressed there, like providing a bike or an old computer. Or simply by making more time to speak to “their” vendor. Vendors, for their part, have been amazingly candid, revealing addictions, convictions and past trauma and misfortune, as well as great hope and undaunted faith in the world and the community. Their stories remind us that each person behind the vendor badge has a past, and with our increased understanding and compassion, these worthy men and women can have more of a future. » Peter Ascot is The Big Issue’s Vendor Profile editor. VENDOR PROFILE HAS BEEN AROUND ALMOST AS LONG AS THE MAGAZINE HAS. VETERAN BIG ISSUE CONTRIBUTOR PETER ASCOT REFLECTS ON HIS MANY YEARS WRITING OR COORDINATING THE FORTNIGHTLY SPOTLIGHT ON ONE OF OUR PEOPLE. TOP ROW (FROM LEFT) MARK, VIC/SA, ED#470; KIM, WA, ED#507; KEN, QLD, ED#354; JEFF, VIC, ED#468 SECOND ROW TED, QLD, ED#100; TANYA, VIC, ED#461; STEPHEN, QLD, ED#484; DEAN, VIC, ED#150 THIRD ROW GREG, QLD, ED#472; KATE, VIC, ED#476; PAM, ACT, ED#430; GLENN P, NSW, ED#366 BOTTOM ROW PAT, WA, ED#479; KERRY, SA, ED#477, JOE, ACT, ED#488; CAROLYN, QLD, ED#500 PHOTOGRAPHS BY JAMES BRAUND, NAT ROGERS, ROSS SWANBOROUGH, ANDREW HODGES, JOSHUA THIES, JOSH DAVIS, DRAGI MARKOVIC, ARUNAS KLUPSAS, SEAN DAVEY, PETER FRANKS Paging All Vendors...