(Please see UPDATE at end)
Most of us will have seen people on the street, or near shops and supermarkets, selling copies of The Big Issue, a weekly magazine produced for homeless people to sell - the current sale price in the UK is GBP1.50 and I read from the website that the vendor gets to keep 80p, having bought the magazine from the publishers for 70p. I knew the basic mechanism already, but wasn't sure of the precise 'deal' for vendors. Read more about the history of 'The Big Issue' here.
In Nairn, where I live, the place where I have seen a 'The Big Issue' vendor most frequently is outside or close to the Somerfield supermarket, although I have occasionally seen a vendor in the High Street between the Co-Op and Boots.
I don't always buy a copy of 'The Big Issue' when I come across a vendor; like most people I don't like to feel I am being 'morally black-mailed' by some of the rather too hard-sell attitude of some of the vendors or of more conventional 'charities' or 'begging' activities. However, I do take a copy quite often. In Nairn since I have lived here (September 2000) I have often noticed a vendor, but it is probably true to say that I have noticed them more frequently and regularly in the past two or three years. For a while, about a year or 18 months ago, I was buying regularly from one particular vendor who seemed always to be there, but I began to find his 'importuning' activities outside Somerfield were becoming rather too intrusive, so I stopped visiting Somerfield for a while and would instead visit either Forres or Inverness to fulfill even the quite small shopping requirements that I usually carried out at Somerfield.
A phenomenon I began to notice about a year ago was that whereas in the past all the vendors I had ever seen in Nairn appeared to be 'white British', they were often from then on non-white (Indian, Pakistani, Eastern European or Arab-looking) and instead of being almost exclusively male there was occasionally a female amongst their number; my 'buying' habits from these folks did not change noticeably, I don't think. In general I support the whole 'ethos' which seems to lie behind 'The Big Issue', even if I readily confess that the decidedly 'socialist' tone of the magazine itself (which I rarely do more than glance through before disposing of it) is not at all to my taste. However I accept completely that the aim behind the magazine is worthy and deserving of support, specially as I am unreconstructed capitalist - the emphasis on encouraging vendors to rely on their own skills is something that appeals to me.
The specific reason for me writing this article today is that at Somerfield earlier today I noticed a swarthy-looking young man when I entered the supermarket (I assumed he was perhaps an Arab or perhaps from south-eastern Europe) and although I never buy from them on entering the supermarket I often do when leaving (when I am more likely to have change in my pocket) and today I had decided I would indeed buy a copy when I was leaving the supermarket. I checked on the price first (now GBP1.50, up from the GBP1.20 the last time I purchased) and the young man answered in English in an obviously-foreign accent, but not an Indian/Pakistani one. Instead he asked me if I speak Spanish - I responded that I speak a little and we proceeded to have a conversation in broken Spanish (the broken Spanish being on my part, of course), as his English is patchy, to say the least. Who knows why he has ended up where he is (perhaps he has been laid off from seasonal farm work now that winter has come), but he asked me if I could find him work painting or decorating and when I said no to that, whether I had a pet he could walk; since my dog died last year the answer to that is 'no', too.. I conclude he is someone who is simply down on his luck and who is looking for any work he can find, but who is meantime selling 'The Big Issue' as a final alternative before straight begging; if he's there over the next few days (although I won't write about it in detail here - I don't believe in violating people's privacy) I may find out a little more and perhaps be able to help him in a small way.
My final comments about this today: if you come across someone selling 'The Big Issue', don't just ignore them and walk on by. Even if you don't plan to buy a magazine from them, I think most of them appreciate that someone acknowledges their presence and interacts with them as a fellow human being; their self-esteem alone may not nourish them, but even that can be helpful. Better still, of course, is if you can buy a copy of the magazines they sell and give them a few more pennies with which to eke out a living.
UPATE: (Saturday 21.40 GMT) Following on from a comment made on this article, as well as posting my own comment in response I have incorporated it in a further article here with my additional remarks.