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Heartbreaking stories of Big Issue sellers battling people’s predjudices

Written by on 09/11/2020

With high streets set to be deserted over the next few weeks while the country is plunged into another national lockdown, there will be some notable characters missing from the hustle and bustle of Sheffield city centre.

Big Issue North sellers can often be spotted plying their trade in and around the centre of the Steel City.

They are people doing a job and making a living, but often they are not treated with the same respect as other vendors, despite the fact that a purchase often goes towards helping them to survive.

Before the national lockdown was announced, Yorkshire Live spoke to two Big Issue sellers about how the magazine saved them from the depths of despair.

While John – known affectionately to others in the city centre as ‘Murf’ – has managed to kick his drug habit and has credited Big Issue North with saving his life, others such as Stuart are happy to openly admit that sales of the magazine funds his addiction to heroin.

Both John and Stuart have incredible stories that they have shared with Yorkshire Live and although there are marked differences in their journeys, there is one common theme they have both faced in their roles – the stigma of being a Big Issue seller.

More now than ever, they need the public’s support but prejudices have crept into people’s minds and made them swerve sellers on the street.

With the lockdown now in full swing, all Big Issue sellers have effectively lost their jobs but when they return, they want people to understand the importance of their jobs and why they desperately need your trade and custom.

‘Big Issue funds my drug addiction’

Stuart admits he uses the money he makes from selling the Big Issue to fund his drug addiction

Stuart, 45, endured a troubled upbringing.

He spent his childhood in and out of care and was a Class A drug user by the age of 14.

Stuart turned to crime to fund his drug addiction – and it wasn’t until he saw Big Issue sellers that he realised that he didn’t have to be a criminal.

“I couldn’t commit crime anymore and I was fed up of looking over my shoulder,” he said.

“I was homeless and the Big Issue was perfect for because I could get money without committing any crime. It helped feed my addiction and give me money to find somewhere to stop at night.”

Stuart is currently living in a shared house but he is no stranger to sleeping rough on the streets.

Since the age of 13 I’ve never really had any settled accommodation apart from when I’ve been living with a partner,” Stuart said.

“I’ve slept anywhere and everywhere – doorways, hospitals, hostels, friends’ sofas and floors – anywhere I can get my head down.”

Stuart has long been and still is addicted to heroin. It’s a drug that gives him an “escape” and he admits that he needs to use when he finds himself struggling.

He was on an abstinence programme prior to the first lockdown but the pressures of isolation made him relapse.

What is Big Issue North?

Each week, around 350 people sell Big Issue North, with vendors visiting regional offices to buy the magazine for £1.50 before selling it on the streets for £3.

Through the Big Issue North Trust, vendors are given additional support to make positive changes, with staff offering advice and help with anything from developing their skills or accessing English language courses, to getting housing, financial or health advice, which can help them achieve their goals and improve their lives for good.

As a registered charity, the Big Issue North Trust also raises funds to provide a range of support for sellers including support accessing services, help getting ID, home furnishing packages and projects such as breakfast clubs.

To make a donation, you can visit their JustGiving page, or text BINORTH to 70201 to give £1, 70331 to give £3, 70970 to give £5 or 70191 to give £10.

“It was hard not being able to mix with people,” he said. “I couldn’t mix with friends who were clean and I struggled really badly because I couldn’t see them or talk to them. My head fell off.

“I’m worried about another lockdown. During the first one I stopped selling and I know for some other guys it got a bit rough.

“For me, I’m an addict so it helps to feed my habit. I don’t use every day but I do when I’m struggling and I would say I’ve cut it down to about once or twice a week.

“It gives me that escape. I don’t drink but it’s only like people going to the pub and getting drunk. It’s like me going for a pint.”

‘We are human beings trying to survive’

Stuart says many people assume Big Issue sellers are ‘Spice heads’

There’s no doubt that like most traders, Stuart has felt the pinch this year thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Sales have dropped and because of stigmas, he thinks people believe Big Issue sellers are more likely to pass on the virus.

“At the moment it’s crap because of Covid,” Stuart said. “Before Covid I could sell 10 magazines in two to three hours. Now it’s taking me two days to sell that amount.

“There’s a busker who plays near me who sings a few songs and managed to get about £40 in the same time I make about £4 – it’s a bit frustrating.

“The big thing about Big Issue is we are working. We’re not begging and people don’t understand that.

“With Covid too people think ‘oh, he must be homeless so he is more likely to catch it because homeless people can’t take care of themselves properly’ but the statistics have proved that to be wrong.”

Stuart, who sells the Big Issue in Fargate, says he buys the magazines for £1.50 each and sells them on for double the price.

Selling one magazine allows him to scrape together enough money to buy himself a hot drink and some food but he admits that people do now seem less reluctant to purchase from him.

He is desperate for people to stop linking Big Issue sellers to “Spice heads” and wants to reinforce the survival message.

“People need to stop tarring us with the same brush as other individuals because people think Big Issue sellers are Spice heads,” Stuart said.

“I was outside a shop once and a shoplifter came running out and the staff accused me of being in cahoots with the shoplifter.

“We are human beings just like everyone else and we’re trying to survive – that’s it.

“We are still here and we take all the precautions so we’ve got hand sanitiser and all that so every time we handle a magazine we use that and ultimately we wouldn’t be out here if we didn’t want or need to sell.”

‘The Big Issue saved my life’

John, known to many as Murf, plies his trade in Fargate

John – or Murf as many know him – is a dab hand at selling the Big Issue and can often be seen plying his trade at the top of Fargate near Orchard Square.

The 57-year-old has been selling it for 20 years but has slowed down his efforts in the past five years to focus on enjoying life a bit more.

He even has his own semi-detached bungalow with a front and back garden but life was not always so perky for John and two decades ago, homelessness combined with drug addictions and a tendency for violence almost saw his life cut tragically short.

“I was massively into drugs and I was rushed into hospital and nearly died of pneumonia and pleurisy,” John, who moved to Sheffield from Manchester, said.

“I was living on the streets at the time and I think my body just couldn’t handle it anymore.

“Even though I was homeless and people were trying to help me my mindset for a long time was that I didn’t need any help. It was a choice, even though it was s***. Even though I nearly died it was my choice and responsibility to be homeless.”

John’s turning point came when he was introduced to the Big Issue and began selling it on the high street.

“It restored my faith in people again and it gave me trust in myself,” he said. “It gave me confidence, stability and peace of mind. When I was on the streets, all I could think about was my next fix.

“Selling these magazines changed my mindset and instead of thinking about where I could get my next fix I was thinking ‘how many magazines can I buy to make X amount of money’.

“I used to be in a world where I thought people were out to get me and I had a front on but since selling the Big Issue I’ve realised that I don’t need to use my fists.

“Before I would have no hesitation knocking someone out – now if someone is screaming at me I can just talk to them to clear things up. It made me understand that I didn’t need to hurt people.

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done and the Big Issue did save my life.”

‘Vendors are reverting back to old ways – and that is scary’

John says many Big Issue sellers have seen their sales slump during the pandemic

John is now clean of drugs and over the past few years he has reduced his hours and has been “slowing down” so he can potter about his house and have more time to himself.

However, on trading days prior to lockdown he noticed dwindling footfall and knows all too well just how crucial magazines sales are to Big Issue sellers’ survival.

“It has been quiet and we’re not earning as much money,” he said. “I look in people’s eyes and I see doubt and uncertainty because of Covid.

“But I always make sure I respect people’s space and people shouldn’t be worried or nervous around us. We’ve got masks and we are aware of the situation.”

He, like Stuart, wants to stamp out misconceptions around Big Issue sellers and encourage members of the public to come and support them once the lockdown is lifted.

“I wish people would realise that when you go into WHSmith and buy a magazine or a newspaper it’s exactly the same as buying from us,” he said.

“The pandemic has absolutely crippled vendors and for most of them it’s a constant battle.

“When I used drugs I knew I wasn’t committing crime to fund it. I worked and spent my money on drugs and that didn’t hurt anyone.

“I’ve seen a number of vendors are reverting back to old ways and that is scary.

“As stable as things might be for me now, I’ve always had to remember that I’m an ex-addict and things can change for you overnight.

“It’s imperative that people remember that Big Issue sellers are out there working like anyone else during this Covid pandemic and this is going to be a hard winter.

“Please stop and chat to people because for some sellers, this is the once chance they get to speak to others.

“Interaction is invaluable and people are in dire straits. Some sellers can be out there for four hours and sell just one magazine and that is just heartbreaking to see.”