Justina Hart on how the magazine sold by the homeless helps them back into learning and life
"People think it's just a magazine, but it's a lot more than that," says Helen Carter, ex-vendor of the Big Issue in the North.
The award-winning magazine, recently rehoused in a purpose-built complex in central Manchester, has been sold by homeless people on northern streets since 1992.
Readers are aware that the Big Issue is a lifeline that enables vendors to earn money and raise self-esteem. What many don't realise is that profits are ploughed back into helping people like Helen get off the streets, and to take control of their lives by gaining skills and getting jobs.
Some might scoff that this is a pipe dream. After all, the Big Issue in the North, like the five other Big Issue companies in the UK, works with some of the most disadvantaged and socially-excluded people in the country.
A 1997 survey revealed that most of the vendors in the region are young, white males. Many have chronic drug and alcohol problems, disabilities or major health worries. Ninety-five per cent left school before the age of 18, 55 per cent have no qualifications, and 33 per cent have never had a job apart from selling the Big Issue.
But for those committed to escaping homelessness, selling the magazine can be a stepping stone. Helen has turned her life around with the help of the company's trust.
Originally from Cheshire, Helen had a serious drugs problem and was sent by the courts to stay in a hostel in Manchester. She sold the Big Issue for 16 months while in detox, moving in May last year into her own apartment. She is now enrolled on a three-year part-time course at North Trafford College, studying to be a welfare officer.
She also works as a volunteer in the Big Issue's employment unit, helping vendors with computing and basic skills: "I've never felt so good in all my life," says Helen. "I was told by so many people I'd end up dead or in jail, but I've achieved so much. I've just proved them all so wrong."
Opened six months ago, the employment unit forms part of the Big Step, a five-point programme for resettlement that also includes accommodation, health, drugs and finance. Caseworkers work with vendors for a year to develop an individual package of support.
Laurence Lennon, manager of the employment unit, says: "When vendors begin to address some of their drink and drugs problems through the Big Step, they get the reward of us starting to look for a job or a course for them."
The Big Step challenges vendors to help themselves, rather than giving them hand-outs. It is a difficult and slow process.
The employment unit is next to the GP's surgery, the laundrette and showers, on the floor below the magazine's distribution point. The unit contains an IT centre offering Internet access, databases and careers guidance software.
It is this computer access that lures the vendors, many of whom are "scared stiff" at the prospect.
At first, the unit is a flexible drop-in facility for vendors to get their first taste of computers. A short agreement will be drawn up and vendors receive one-to-one IT and basic skills training. Initially, users may be unreliable, sometimes "gouching out" - falling asleep because of drugs - but some will without prompting begin to turn up regularly.
They are then offered the chance to go through the full assessment process which examines individual training needs alongside career aspirations, and includes drawing up an action plan.
Many vendors have unrealistic expectations. "We don't destroy dreams, we try to get them slowly to be realistic," says Lennon. He calls this incremental approach, "funnelling".
"You'll get someone on drugs who'll get the week wrong, never mind the hour. You slowly chip away at them and give them more structure."
The unit prepares people for work using one-to-one sessions, short courses and project groups. Taster coursesmight include food hygiene, handling aggression and customer care.
The unit also runs a creative-writing class, a video project and a football team "to give people something to look forward to".
Adult education and colleges like Manchester College of Arts and Technology come to the unit to run tasters and provide careers guidance. Courses are run in situ because most of the vendors are terrified of more mainstream environments.
Anne McNamara, director of the Big Issue in the North, says: "What we're doing is incredibly difficult. When is the right time to help a 24-year-old with a 10-year heroin history? But without being naive, we are optimistic.
"We've been approached by a number of colleges and they all wanted bums on seats: they think we've got a cornered market."
However, since different people have different backgrounds, providers have to listen to what vendors want and are ready for. "You can't do business in this area if you think there are three or four stock answers."