The Big Issue Invades America

Commentary Opposing Big Issue

by Staff at Street Sheet, San Francisco

     Yet another aspect of homelessness has gone corporate: street newspapers. The Big Issue, a glossy paper started in England and sold by homeless people, has landed on the shores of Los Angeles. Having already spread throughout Europe, South Africa, and Australia they have turned their greedy little eyes to us.

     The paper calls itself The Big Issue leaving people (especially advertisers) with the impression that the big issue is homelessness. Yet, homeless issues, by their own admission, are only about 20% of the paper’s content and homeless people are an even smaller percentage of the paper’s multi-national staff.

     The vendors, who are charged per issue to sell this product, don’t reap any of the economic benefits of the millions that are brought in annually through the vendor charges, advertising sales, and foundation support. Instead, The Big Issue has established its own foundation so as to dole out grants and gifts in communities (countries) where they plan to set up shop. If they have this kind of money, why can’t they pay the salespeople (vendors) a living wage with benefits? You can bet their advertising staff are paid and paid well.

     The Big Issue is about big bucks, pure and simple. Dishing out a few nickels and dimes to some homeless people doesn’t change the situation. It also doesn’t lessen their reputation for being of a "Poverty Pimps". They are exploiting homelessness to sell their advertising and homeless people as a cheap (charged) labor source to sell their product.

     For The Big Issue to claim, as they do, that they lift people out of poverty through the sales of their paper is nothing short of bullshit. No street newspaper can claim that it’s vendors leave poverty with the money they get from selling the paper. That kind of mentality is right up there with "the wealthy panhandler" and "the Cadillac-driving AFDC recipient."

     The inevitable consequence of this corporate move is the licensing of homeless people to sell street papers and thus less opportunity for homeless people to vend them.

     Street papers in their simplicity benefit everyone involved. The organization that publishes them gets to present to the general public homeless and poverty issues from a perspective that will never be in the mainstream press or even the alternative press. Homeless and poor people have an opportunity to positively express themselves through writing, artwork and poetry and to see their works and ideas out in the community, while at the same time others are able to panhandle with their dignity intact.

     The general public gets the best benefit of all: they learn about an issue that many will agree is tearing this country apart. And they get to learn about it without the barrage of commercialism and sensationalizing so common in the mainstream media today.

     The Big Issue corporate approach to this important social contract severely threatens to kill it. Please don’t buy a copy and please write them at: The Big Issue, Fleet House, 57-61 Clarkenwell Road, Farringdon, London EC1 M5NP or e-mail them at and tell them that their exploitation of poor people will never sell here.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published 1998 Issue 25