The Big Issue at 19.

The Big Issue is 19 years old. Already. I can remember it launching when we were only two thirds of our way through 18 years of Tory misrule. Ranting student aside, The Big Issue came alive at the same time as the Poll Tax riot. People were angry. I used to work nights in Camden in the early ’90s and on my journey to work I saw more and more homeless camped out in doorways. John Bird set the magazine up because government wasn’t doing anything. He should get a knighthood.

Like many I had my regular Big Issue seller. Mine had a pitch outside Sainsbury’s on Tottenham Court Road. I went to the bank to get him £40 once so that he could pay a fine. He moved on, hopefully to greener pastures. In 2005 I moved south of the river and started walking up from Charing Cross station to work every day. The woman on this week’s birthday issue is Billie and I pass her every time on my way into Soho.

Occasionally I buy a copy if there’s someone interesting on the cover. A couple of times, at Christmas, I’ve slipped her a tenner. Most days I just walk past as she’s usually chatting to someone. Other times, a quick nod and hello. She’s always cheerful. And loud. Some days you’re just not in the mood.

The only time I had anything approaching a chat was on the 9/9/09. I was walking up St Martin’s Lane when I heard a crash behind me. A woman in my office had been hit by a bike and, with Billie, I helped her up and made sure she was OK. I took her by cab to hospital. Nasty sprain, that’s all. Next day Billie asked me if she was alright.

And that’s been it really. I’m sure if Billie had more time she’d happily stop and tell me her back story. But, somehow, I’ve always felt it rude to ask. Prying. She’s selling The Big Issue – what else do I need to know? Which is why this week’s copy of the mag was special. In it Billie tells her life story. Christ! I can see why she’s so happy and chipper now. Now is better than before and it’s largely down to the Big Issue. It’s offered her the hand up, not the hand out, that’s helped her take control of her life. And enjoy living it. It’s still hard but it seems the only way is up for her.

I’m really pleased for her. And I know others will be too. A Big Issue seller in today’s society is a valuable public service I reckon. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, obviously, but it’s a small, human reminder of “there but for the grace of God, go I”. It pricks the colour supplement, Adman version of the world. There’s no con to The Big Issue. It’s real and unlike, say, an earthquake in Haiti or a flood in Pakistan, it’s happening here, literally on our streets. Homelessness isn’t about to go away. Conservative estimates have it that 25% of homeless people are ex-services. Blair and Bush’s little adventure in Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually add more.

Buy The Big Issue. It’s the least you can do.

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