As you stroll about on your daily business, heading to school or dragging yourself to work, you are confronted by a stranger waving magazines in your face. “BIIIIG ISSUE, COME AND READ THE LATEST BIG ISSUE,” he yells. Blinded by his florescent yellow vest, you don’t even register the last thing he says: “helping people help themselves”. You look down at your phone with a concentrated look on your face. You don’t have any spare change or a spare moment to stop and chat. You’re not sure if you owe this person something or why you should help. Is he homeless? Will he use the money you give him for drugs? However he got there, it must have been his fault, right? I’m here to share a story that will help you to understand.
Meet Paul. He limps into The Big Issue office to buy his magazine and book his weekly pitching spots, with a smile that would make you think he’s just saved a life. His long white beard, round belly and hearty laugh remind you of Santa Claus – with a slight costume change. Like a child on a mission, his eyes sparkle with eagerness to get the day started. You only need to take one glance at his battered leg and smiling face to know that his story is one of survival.
“I used to be a well-off person you know, money-wise, housing-wise. It wasn’t my choice to become homeless; I got evicted because the owner wanted to sell the place. He gave me a quick eviction you know, “get out”. I didn’t even have time to look for a place. In the end I took him to court, and I won, but it didn’t help me to find another place because there was a shortage of housing at the time,” Paul remembers.
“One thing led to another, and I got into drugs and alcohol to stay warm at night and it became a catch 22 situation, and I was like that for years.”
One day, Paul decided he had had enough of living that way and forced himself to seek help, find a house and get himself a job. The Big Issue gave him just the opportunity he needed to start earning money again and get out of debt. He was one of the first sixteen vendors.
“It was June 16th 1996, Sunday morning at 10.30am when I started,” he recalls.
“The Big issue opened all sorts of doors for other things, I do a lot of acting and have been in a few movies. I did art classes, drama classes, writing classes; you name it. Would you believe I’m a pastry cook by trade? I love learning and education is one of my fortes. I don’t think I really finished studying until I was nearly 30. I have 2 trades under my belt and 3 diplomas.”
After suffering a stroke, and having a triple bypass and double sternotomy, Paul is now waiting for a lung transplant. Years of working as a plastics engineer have left him with emphysema. Despite his ailments, which he calls a “major grease and oil change”, Paul’s positive radiance is undeniable.
“If you’re not positive you’ll start getting into a rut and before you know it you start going backwards in your life, and all that work you’ve done over the years is just a waste. So even though I’m having a bad day, I always look up and stay positive, and at the end of the day I end up happy no matter what. And I try to help other people who are with me to stay positive too, especially with The Big Issue vendors.”
“The public can feel if you’re in a bad mood and they wont come near you and buy a magazine. But if they feel that you’re in a good jolly mood they’ll come up to you, give you a tip or even get you lunch. So it pays to stay positive no matter how bad you feel, you know.”
All The Big Issue needs is more people like you who have simply stopped and taken the time to hear someone else’s story. It’s easy to blame others and turn to drugs and alcohol – but it’s not so easy to start over and sell magazines on the streets for a living. Just one moment of recognition can go a long way – not just for them, but for you as well. It makes you realize that we are all human – prone to making the same mistakes. In the end, it comes down to luck and circumstance whether you end up on the streets or not. And it is courage and resilience that will help people, just like Paul, to pick themselves back up and shake off the dust.
For more information on how to support The Big Issue and their amazing work, visit http://www.thebigissue.org.au