When I first met Big Issue seller Sharon back in February, she quoted me a line from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
We had been talking about homelessness and found common ground in our shared desire to destroy the stereotypes surrounding it. I had been working with street papers sold by homeless people all over the world for eight years, and she had experienced homelessness for many of her 47 years of life.
Before long, we had agreed to produce her story together. Sharon had just started out as a writer, doing a journalism course via The Big Issue and posting on her blog. We agreed that I would follow her for a day and that we would both write about our experiences. I would try to sell the story and we would split the fee. A pitch on Contributoria followed and we were good to go.
Monday 12 May, 3.50am, taxi
Danielle: I’m on my way, feeling that I am cheating already. I just got out of a comfortable bed, washed my face in a shiny tiled bathroom and paid the equivalent of at least a day of Sharon’s earnings on a taxi to bring me across town to the wooden summer house where she currently stays. Her bed is in the backyard of a villa on Telegraph hill, with no electricity or toilet. Cold water comes from a garden hose and the summer house gets cold and leaky in Britain’s mostly non-summer weather.
By the time the taxi approaches our meeting point, I am craving coffee. It reminds me of a conversation Sharon and I had before, on a concrete bench in a park near The Big Issue offices in Vauxhall. On the ground next to her stood her heavy rucksack packed with copies of the latest magazine and her official vendor jacket. Sipping from the café latte I bought her from a Starbucks around the corner, she told me: “I sometimes say to commuters: if you swapped just one coffee a week for a magazine, you would help me build my life, and you would have a great read.”
“The passing public have the idea that homeless people are drunks or addicts or that it is their own fault that they have nowhere to live.”
4.15am, Telegraph Hill
Sharon: Despite it having been around for 22 years, people still do not know how The Big Issue works: that we have to pay for magazines before we can sell them, that your capital is tied up in the stock and that anything you can’t sell by the end of the week therefore becomes your loss. Vendors are often treated with contempt by the passing public, who have the idea that homeless people are drunks or addicts or that it is their own fault that they have nowhere to live. I want Danielle to experience people’s attitudes towards me; some can be incredibly rude and dismissive, even if you only want to ask them the time.
D: We meet a fellow Big Issue vendor on the bus and discuss the previous week’s sales. On Monday mornings, all vendors head to Vauxhall to buy the new edition. In the distribution office we grab a bad-tasting coffee and wait for the truck to offload the magazines. Sharon saved £30 from last week’s profits to be able to buy 24 copies. The interaction between vendors reminds me of that of market traders. Despite the fact that many have had a rough night’s sleep on cold streets, in noisy hostels or other temporary shelter, everyone looks keen to get to work. We head for the tube to make sure we are on our pitch before the rush hour begins.
6.15am, London Bridge
S: I am always up by 4.30am and at my pitch on the south end of London Bridge by 6am every weekday. Despite the fact that 48,000 people pass me by 9.30am sometimes I only sell five magazines; a profit of just £6.25. On a good morning I am only likely to sell about 16. However, some people do not want a magazine and just give me some change as a tip, which thankfully tops up my money by about £5 to £15 a day.
D: A loo, finally! One of the many things I did not anticipate about life on the street is how hard it is to find a toilet, somewhere to get some water and warm up. Sharon hands in books and picks some new ones. With no TV or entertainment in the summer house, she reads as much as a book a day. She checks her email and writes on her blog using the free computers and internet. I sit next to her updating my twitter page on my smartphone and once again realise how easily we take day-to-day life for granted. Sharon says she never feels self-pity, partly because she spends three or four hours per day caring for her disabled friend Su and her partner.
S: Normally, I finish selling at about 9.30 and take the bus to Su’s. I help her have a bath, get dressed, take her shopping or cook bulk meals to put into her freezer for later. I have known Su for about ten years. When I bumped into her three years ago, I had no idea that she had had an accident that had put her in a wheelchair. She had a home help who did bits of shopping for her but the lady was not allowed to push Su out in her chair for insurance reasons. That first week I took her to Lewisham indoor shopping centre and we spent many hours going round the shops. We had a wonderful day and many laughs and I vowed then that I would help Su in any way that I could to have a better life.
I leave Su’s by about midday and then I try to get back to the summer house to see my partner and have lunch with him. For the past eight years he has had a long-term illness in the form of a bowel fistula. Although he suffers pain, discomfort and acute constipation he never moans and he is very supportive of all the things I do. He urged me to go on the Big Issue journalism course; he said that it was about time that I did something for myself.
“I seem to be the first person whom people tell when they are made redundant. I understand exactly how they feel.”
11.30am, drop-in centre
D: In the shadow of The Shard is a small homeless day centre where we stop for a shower. The kitchen serves spaghetti bolognese today, which smells good and I realise that I am starving. Sharon says she used to come here daily but that her stomach got upset when she ate here all the time. We sold more magazines than usual this morning so we decide to treat ourselves to a hearty chicken and rice takeaway. We eat on a bench in the park. I am touched by the stories Sharon tells me about her regular customers in the City, who open up to her in surprising ways.
S: Some of my regulars think of me as a friend and tell me their triumphs and troubles. Just this week, a lady let me know that despite needing IVF to get pregnant with her last child, who was unfortunately born very premature, she was now pregnant again naturally and even her mother did not know yet! I also seem to be the first person whom people tell when they are made redundant. I understand exactly how they feel, having experienced it myself. I am currently homeless due to my last redundancy.
“Day-to-day costs are much higher pay-as-you-go, which is the only option for many homeless people.”
D: We have been carrying a dirty laundry bag with us all day. We spend £4 on washing and £3 on drying. Sharon tells me we will reach the £8 daily cap on our Oyster card too, as we need to get on a bus to buy our next supply of magazines, using this morning’s profits. Her phone calls and text messages cost more than mine too, simply because she is on prepaid and I can get a contract. She needs to buy small quantities of food because she does not have a fridge or freezer, and bulk-buying supermarket deals is impossible as the upfront costs are too high. I become very aware of the fact that day-to-day costs are much higher pay-as-you-go, which is the only option for many homeless people.
3pm, London Bridge
S: After lunch I might read for half an hour and then it is back to the bus stop to go to Waterloo and see the co-ordinator there from the Big Issue, Ben, to buy more magazine stocks. Then on to London Bridge to do the evening rush hour session from 3pm until 6pm. Most evenings I sell about six copies to add to my morning total. When I finish I drop into Su’s to see if she needs help with anything, like getting ready for bed. Quite often my partner will be there as Su has let him take over a corner of her bedroom for his DVDs and music since we have no electricity in the summer house. I try to be in bed by 9.30pm, ready for my early starts.
“I look at the thousands of people in suits and jackets rushing past us and wonder how many of them appreciate just how hard it is to be both homeless and self-employed.”
6pm, London Bridge
D: Our evening spot on the walkway to the station is windy and cold. I am shattered after fourteen hours on my feet, roaming around without a place to rest. My thoughts are drifting towards a hot shower, a nice bowl of pasta and a night on the sofa. I look at the thousands of people in suits and jackets rushing past us and wonder how many of them appreciate just how hard it is to be both homeless and self-employed. Sharon is out every day, come rain or shine, and only had three days off in the two years she has been a vendor. While I try my hardest not to get upset at the people who give us disapproving looks or tell us to ‘get a real job’ as they walk by, Sharon is still smiling genuinely at everyone who meets her eyes.
S: I see so many people walking to the City in the morning who probably have somewhere to live and a well-paid job, but they look so despondent due to work or personal problems. I feel that if your life is not personally fulfilling for your soul then it all becomes striving for status or money. One day they will realise that it is too late to change relationships or career and that their chance has gone and their life is wasted.
I have a wonderful partner and friends and I feel that I make a difference in people’s lives; even if it is only to make them laugh on the way to a boring job. I hope people talk to me and help me not because they feel sorry for me, but because they can see how hard I work and how dedicated I am to making a success of selling the Big Issue. My life is happy and fulfilling.
We kept a video diary of our day together, filmed on a mobile phone. Watch ‘A day in the life of Big Issue seller Sharon’ here.
[Credit: Photo of Sharon by Danielle Batist]