There are so many things to write about at the moment that I’ve been slightly struck dumb. There’s a strange ‘it’s all a bit 1936′ feeling in the air: expulsion of the Roma; increasing privatisation; the dismantling of the NHS; trade union tub-thumping; the pope. It’s like these demons of another age have been hiding in the dark and now, on our weakest moments, they’re all crawling out to clasp back what was once theirs.
However, to give one example as a microcosm of our situation, I present you with: the latest fashion concept for the homeless. The Big Issue have brought out a new red jacket which the vendors are to meant to wear. They’re being rolled out nationally this week. Londoners might not see them round so much, as they’re being told that the jackets are optional here. But when I was in a small town near London yesterday, some of the vendors told me that they hadn’t been given much of an option.
“Four weeks ago, when we were first told about the jackets, we were told that we could refuse to wear them if we had personal reasons. Then 2 weeks ago we were told that those personal reason had to be religious. Because of the alcohol.”
What he meant by this is the advert, printed in a small rectangle on the front of the jacket, for a pretty unknown chain booze shop (I’m not going to say its name as I don’t want to give them any extra name recognition). This advert is also printed very large on the back of the jackets. My friend the vendor was complaining how hot the jacket made him, how the hard cheap plastic was digging into his shoulder. It was far from the worst thing in his life, but it really wasn’t helping.
The Big Issue is a homeless charity with a difference. It creates a community that offers support, and provides a way for some people on the absolute margins of our society to find a way back to the nearest edge. But it’s also a social enterprise. This week, the issue is £2 – supposedly because it’s a special bumper birthday edition. But that also makes it harder to sell, as does the jacket: cantankerous penny-pinchers can now see the vendors a mile off. They’ve been made into walking billboards earning revenue for a company that pays money to the magazine, but which they don’t see. They still have to sell each issue to get each scrap of cash.
A few of the guys then got chatting about the Roma, and how they were running a scam on selling the Big Issue. A couple of Romanian families have been picking up a few hundred Big Issue copies in the mornings and then selling them as vendors, but the guys I was talking to felt they were frauds. “Some of them have got leather shoes worth £80, and fancy watches. They’re not homeless, they shouldn’t be picking them up. And then when it gets to midday, we can’t get any more papers from the depot to sell.”
I tried to talk to them about how not all Roma are like that, if indeed there was a scam going on; how these families were not helping anyone, least of all other Roma. They kind of nodded a bit. One of them pulled at his red jacket, grimacing while he tugged the edging away from his shoulder.