The Big Issue : Edition 554
#VENDORWEEK 26 JAN–8 FEB 2018 29 the nightmares she experienced as a result of things that happened to her when she was a child. “Heroin blocks out the distress but, in the end, you have to keep taking it in order to feel normal,” she says. During her addiction, Cheryl became homeless and slept under a bridge, on Flinders Street, stairwells and boarding houses, none of which were safe. Today Cheryl sells the magazine and contributes to The Big Issue Classroom program, which educates school students about homelessness and disadvantage. She is also employed part-time by the Women’s Subscription Enterprise, where she hand-packs copies of the magazine to be sent to subscribers. Cheryl says working for The Big Issue gave her confidence and self- esteem. “The staff are like family. When you’re having a bad day, you can tell them honestly how you feel and they understand.” At The Big Issue you are not just a number. When confronted by a serious illness or traumatic event, vendors know they can call on staff who offer support. If it weren’t for this, there would have been a lot more vendors lost. Over the 20 years she has worked for The Big Issue, Kirstie Papanikolaou has seen lots of people caught in the stranglehold of addiction gradually break free. Some convicted of a serious crime no longer re-offend. Instead, ambition kicks in. They want to be successful – small business operators, they want to build a fortress against life’s vicissitudes coin by coin. Kirstie is a small woman with a huge voice who isn’t afraid to take on a man covered in tattoos if he breaches the sellers’ Code of Conduct. She won’t stand for anything that could jeopardise an opportunity that’s a lifeline to some highly vulnerable people. An undercover softie, her rants are tough love. Kirstie has a way of uplifting people. “What do you mean you are not good enough?” she asks a shy vendor. “You’re the most capable person I know! Look how far you have come since you joined us! People can’t wait to read the magazine! You go girl! Up and at ’em!” Selling the magazine can be daunting, especially in the beginning. On my first day, 16 years ago, I stood white-knuckled and petrified on Little Bourke Street, holding on to my five copies for dear life. When at last a customer asked for one, I wouldn’t let go because of shock. He practically had to wrench it from my hands. In real life, when someone makes a poor choice, they are not always given a second chance. At The Big Issue it’s different. There are success stories of people who have made a mistake. One young man convicted of armed robbery attracted attention because of his work ethic. He appeared every day, like clockwork, under the clocks of Flinders Street Station and worked long hours. A man who owned a string of pubs approached the vendor and talked him into taking up an apprenticeship. These days he’s a head chef. THE MAN IN the Armani suit and The Big Issue vendor in the yellow fluorescent vest have more in common than meets the eye. Big Issue vendors buy the magazine for $3.50 and sell it for $7, earning a regular income. As businesspeople, vendors have to keep an eye on their bottom line, re-investing part of their profit and keeping some capital in reserve. They both operate in a competitive environment, but the vendor has something over the businessman. They don’t teach street smarts at Harvard. The magazine encourages vendors to write about their lives and publishes their stories. I found turning the hurt into words is a healing experience and offers a chance to connect with readers. The Big Issue is part of a global movement. The International Network of Streetpapers (INSP) comprises more than 100 street publications in 34 countries and 24 languages. Graeme Wise, who brought both The Big Issue and The Body Shop to Australia, was not at all certain the magazine would take off. “It just seemed to me that it must work. But I now know what a great confidence it was; many doubted the concept of giving homeless and long-term unemployed men and women the means to be able to make a livelihood as self-employed distributors of a quality magazine.” The Body Shop continues to support Big Issue vendors by selling the magazine to them at their outlets. When The Big Issue was launched on the steps of Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station in 1996, a big team of vendors formed a human chain to pass bundles of magazines up the stairs. It was this spirit that kept The Big Issue afloat in the early days when it was flying by the seat of its pants, before the people of Australia took it to their hearts. The spirit continues almost 22 years later. We are celebrating International Vendor Week from 5 to 11 February. Please come and chat to your nearest vendor. To us, it feels like love. » Mariann B is a Big Issue vendor and is regularly published in our pages.