London's homeless sell a success story: A newspaper has brought hope to people sleeping rough. Martin Wroe reports

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The Independent Online
DANIELLE is 18. A year ago she was in her summer break from a Kent boarding school when her father refused to pay the fees for her final year or to take her into his home. She started sleeping rough in London. On a good Friday or Saturday, begging outside Stringfellow's nightclub, she would make pounds 40 a night.

'The worst time of all when I was begging was when someone from school saw me,' she says. 'It was so embarrassing. Begging is the worst.'

These days she is no longer begging a living. She has a council flat with her boyfriend. And she claims that a humble newspaper changed her life.

The nation's press may have taken some stick of late but no one is threatening to take the Big Issue to the Press Complaints Commission. It is an unlikely publishing success. Last autumn John Bird, a journalist, persuaded Anita Roddick's Body Shop to help him launch a monthly newspaper which people sleeping on the streets of London would sell to people walking on the streets of London.

It launched at a time when most publishers were closing titles but a year on it has tripled its initial monthly sales figures from 50,000 to 150,000. This month it moves to magazine format and fortnightly publication, and predicts it will be breaking even by Christmas.

At the newspaper's distribution centre in Victoria up to 300 vendors arrive from their pavement pillows each morning to buy bulk copies of the paper for 10p each. They sell them for 50p, pocketing the difference.

Danielle and her boyfriend make an average of pounds 40 a day between them. Taffy, 24, who has been on the streets for years, saved pounds 150, enough for a bond on a bedsit, and has since had no trouble paying the pounds 60 a week rent.

'Selling the paper changed my attitude to myself and to the public,' he said. 'I thought people didn't care but when they see you doing something other than begging, their attitude changes.'

Now he works full-time in administration for the Big Issue. Nearly 1,300 men and women have been 'badged' to sell the newspaper in the last year. Twice a day an orientation session takes place for prospective vendors who want the badge, the accreditation to sell. They have to be homeless or in temporary accommodation, to declare all earnings to the DSS and agree not to sell under the influence of drugs or drink, not to use bad language, obstruct the public or fight for pitches. They must not beg while wearing the badge and if they break the rules they lose it.

Unlike most newspapers this one is quite open about the fact that it provides psychiatric and alcohol counselling for its workforce - they are currently looking for a voluntary drugs counsellor to help.

Andy, who was homeless until the Big Issue turned up, said: 'It's not just about money in the pocket and self-respect. It's about working your way back up from the bottom.'

Mr Bird, the editor, estimates that the average vendor earns up to pounds 250 a month. But apart from providing cash and dignity to several hundred street people, he claims that about 40, like Danielle and Taffy, have been able to move off the streets.

Many vendors talk with relief of being able to talk to ordinary people who, before the excuse of purchasing the paper, merely averted their eyes in embarrassment at their predicament.

A mixture of guilt, compassion, charity and persuasive sales pitches probably accounts for the booming circulation. It is unlikely that the peculiar editorial mix of London high life and low life, cultural reviews and cultural drop-outs, would sell as many copies on news stands.

It is only a matter of time before someone reports them to the Press Compliments Commission.

Annual subscription to the Big Issue; 10-12 Belgrave Road, London SW1; pounds 20 for 24 issues.

(Photograph omitted)