Interview with Stephen Robertson, CEO of The Big Issue Foundation

Yesterday Stephen Robertson, CEO of The Big Issue Foundation kindly took some time out of his day to chat to Melita, co-producer of ‘Sleeping Rough‘, about homelessness, what everyday people can do to help and what he thinks of our concept. Take a look at what he had to say…

by Melita Cameron-Wood

Stephen addressing students at London Metropolitan Uni

Stephen addressing students at London Metropolitan Uni


M: Why do you think homelessness is so high and rising at the moment?

S: In simple terms if you have no money and no mates, then you are more likely to spend more time outside. The ending of a short-term tenancy is now the major contributor towards homelessness and in the past it was always seen to be a thing centred around relationship breakdown. Of course, that is still a feature, but there are things that are within the realm of government and local authorities that contribute towards the pressures that can result in somebody becoming homeless, so the recent activity around benefit capping is a contributor too. I suppose the language is quite important too, because the term benefit sounds like it is a privilege.


M: Hmm, rather than a right…

S: Yes, the original phrase was social security – security being the key thing. Now it sounds like you are going on a benefits holiday. I think that masks the point that actually we are as a society reducing levels of security for vulnerable people. Then it follows that it is more likely that they will experience poverty and will run out of friends and money and end up spending more time outside.


M: Do you think the main way to improve people’s situations on the streets is through governmental action?

S: I think it takes a combined approach to make a difference because one of the things that will happen to people when they hit the street is that their problems will get worse. You might be more likely to develop an addiction issue, a mental health issue. You then might find it more difficult to negotiate the different processes that you need to go through in order to get access to social security and access to housing. In other words, as you slide down, climbing back up becomes increasingly hard.


M: What do you think the main thing is that everyday people can do to help?

S: Well, going through parliament at the moment is the bill aimed at reducing homelessness. This encapsulates a greater sense of joining up the various players and organisations to create a much more rounded solution. As we know there is a clear lack in housing and in America the ‘Housing First’ option has proved to be very successful. In other words getting people housed, then dealing with the other issues that they have got from outside is more effective than targeting the issues that people have outside in order to get them inside.

People can definitely support that bill by writing to their MP in a very practical way, but there are also lots of good voluntary organisations set up that are under pressure from funding cuts and supporting those organisations through fundraising, donating or perhaps volunteering are some of the fairly simple options. At the Big Issue, we give people the opportunity to start their own business and to earn money in a legitimate way that isn’t committing crime or begging. So if people simply buy a magazine from a Big Issue vendor each week, the vendors will benefit from that not only financially, but also socially; one of the other things that can happen to people who are experiencing homelessness is a huge sense of isolation and with that begins that journey of looking inward rather than looking outward, that could take you to mental health issues and so on.


M: I thought that about your slogan actually – “A hand up rather than a hand out.” It really sums it up, because people can lose their sense of self-worth out on the street. But I think there is always the danger that once a roof has been put over someone’s head, then the government thinks ‘right, we’ve ticked that box’ and abandons the people.

S: Supporting people in their tenancies and the process of living indoors is important for some people. People will often tell you that when they were first housed that they spent a lot of time sleeping on the floor rather than the bed, because that was what they were more comfortable with, so you should never underestimate the value of having accommodation, but also the challenges that come with it, particularly if someone has been outside for a long time, in terms of getting their head around it.


M: Yes, I think continued support is really important.

S: Precisely. And unfortunately we live in an environment where there is increased pressure on funding – it is going to get less and less. And so those options for support are, where possible, being picked up by not-for-profit organisations. So again, in terms of practical help, people can probably help the most by supporting those organisations.


Big Issue customers taking part in 2015 event, 'The Big Sleep Out'

Big Issue customers taking part in 2015 event, ‘The Big Sleep Out’


M: I was looking at the statistics this morning on The Big Issue Foundation website. I was interested in the gender ratio and the nationalities of people living on the street. Could you expand about the general trends in the homeless demographic in the UK?

S: I would really recommend having a look at Crisis‘s website. I’d also recommend having a look at Homeless Link‘s website because they have some pretty detailed assessments of what is going on. With the broadest of brushes, the street homeless population is majority male, single men. The reasoning around that is that the statutory support for single men is the lowest, so you are not seen as the priority need. If you are a woman with children, you would be higher up the list for support. The mix is very diverse in terms of where you look, so in London it’ll look different than it might do in a rural area like Cornwall.

You’ll see a greater number of economic migrants, people who believe in whatever way that being in London in whatever instance is preferable to being where they were. Sometimes people will think that London streets are paved with gold, when in fact they are paved with concrete with cardboard over the top. There are groups of working homeless people, who have an occupation but not at a level that allows them to easily access rented accommodation, so you might be sleeping with your friends in a car park, and then getting up and working on a building site every day, holding your life together by washing in the loos of Waterloo train station, brushing your teeth and looking kind of respectable.


M: And in terms of The Big Issue and the sellers, do people tend to progress onto other jobs afterwards, what is the general timespan of work as a Big Issue vendor?

S: The average timespan is 1-2 years, of using that mechanism to earn cash. What selling The Big Issue requires is face to face sales skills and there are many people who would not want to do a face to face sales job, let alone at a time of crisis. When you choose to start buying and selling the magazine, you become much more visible. You simply put on a red piece of plastic with The Big Issue printed on it and suddenly you are not who you think you are, you are who other people think you are and that might be homeless, feckless, idle, drug-addicted. It’s a huge challenge for people to get over those stereotypes because some of your potential customers will be looking at you in fear and prejudice and you might struggle because of the other things that are going on in your life to create that connectivity between you and the public, so quite a few people drop out at that stage.

For those who don’t, the journey begins from the decision to sign up to start selling the magazine, but it is a self-determining journey so the skills that you develop through selling are important life skills. It is about timekeeping, it is about budgeting, about overcoming the prejudices that occur when you are selling. Your sense of accomplishment from earning money is the beginning of that huge journey, for some people that will be a journey that leads to other opportunities later. In answer to your question, everyone goes on a journey. That journey might lead to other employment opportunities, it can lead to just a greater degree of stability through the process of work, which has a positive impact on how you feel about yourself.


M: A return to a degree of normality I suppose. Going out and doing a job…

S: Yes, the value of getting up and going to work and the discipline attached to that should not be underestimated. It can mean that you are better able to cope and make decisions than you were before.


M: I saw that the Big Issue Foundation has organised another bike ride event from London to Paris. Do you think event based fundraising is one of the best ways of doing it? How does your fundraising tend to function generally?

S: Event based fundraising offers people a very participative experience. The chance to actually do something that they perhaps haven’t done before and raise money through that commitment, time and effort. For instance, next Friday we have a sleep out at St. John’s Church. We have got 90 people, some of our vendors, taking part in an event, which is not rough sleeping in the true sense of the word by any means, but it is a participative event aimed at educating. It gives people some messages that they can take away and tell other people.


M: Can I ask briefly about the ‘Sleeping Rough’ film’s concept; what is your first impression of it? How do you think we could improve what we are doing?

S: I think it is really important, as you are already doing, to gain access to people with lived experience and I think that voice should be really loud because I think it is the most powerful. Also the point that I made earlier about who is homeless and who isn’t and the imagery that is portrayed. It’s relatively easy to overly portray stereotypes with a view to getting the message and the seriousness across and sometimes that can slide into stereotypes. That is of course a little bit like my point about who is and who isn’t homeless, when you look around a room, you’ve already put on a certain filter. So look in the harder places to get some of that insight would be my view.


M: Do you think it is possible to incite change through the project or do you see it as a drop in the ocean?

S: It depends where there are opportunities to view. The web is very powerful if you have decent content from supportive channels. It’s about how you get it out there. There is a homelessness film festival every year, so again Google that. That is the kind of platform where things get shown. Maybe you’ll get lucky!


M: Fingers crossed! Thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to me.

S: Pleasure!


The Big Issue Foundation is a financially independent charity and the charity arm of The Big Issue. You can find out more about them here, and also email us, Tweet us or Facebook us. 

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