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Big Issue Rags to Riches

There’s nothing as comfortingly familiar as hearing a slightly eccentric yet extremely cheerful gentleman holler “bishoo sir, bishoo madam” at the hurrying throngs. The cheerful gentleman probably finds it comforting, too: selling the Big Issue gives homeless people like him the chance to earn their own money and put their lives back together.

How did it all come about?

Gordon Roddick saw the Street News in New York – another paper sold by homeless people – and decided to set up his own on this side of the pond which he called The Big Issue. Good theft, basically. He asked old pal and printer John Bird to help him out; they launched The Big Issue in 1991 as a monthly publication in London. Now it comes out once a week and there are five different versions across the UK, plus editions in Australia, Japan, South Africa, Namibia and Kenya. Blimey.

Learn while you earn

The Big Issue gives the vendors the skills they need to get by in the commercial world: they’re given ten free copies to get started, but from then on they pay 70p for every copy, and sell it on for £1.50. This helps with getting better at managing money – something we all struggle with – and through dealing with the public every day they also grow in confidence. As if that wasn’t enough, all profits go to their charity wing, The Big Issue Foundation.

Good knight

The whole idea is to give homeless people ‘a hand up, not a hand out’; fighting your way out of adversity is something John Bird knows about – he was homeless as a child, lived in an orphanage and had served several prison sentences for theft by his twenties. Now he’s got an MBE - enough to make the rest of us feel a bit useless.

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