A Big Issue
The Big Issue Australia has set up a highly commendable, for-profit, self-sustaining social venture - The Women’s Subscription Enterprise - to offer practical help and opportunity to the 40,000 women who sleep rough in Australia every night. The enterprise will provide work and training pathways, promoting individual skills and experience so they can start to rebuild their lives.
Children frequently accompany their mothers on the street, having fled abusive home lives and family breakdowns together. Yet even a period of homelessness as short as 2 months can have a long term effect on a child’s development. The enterprise is therefore giving a new start in life to the whole family.
So, why’s The Big Issue doing this?
After all, we’ve all heard of the magazine, know it’s a good read and recognise its success in providing an income for the homeless, and yet apparently the majority of vendors – 85-90% - are men. Why?
It’s not an easy job for a woman, especially if she has children - there’s no handy day care centre to take care of the kids for a few hours; if she’s been the victim of all-too-common domestic violence then low self-esteem and anxiety isn’t going to help her to stand on the street in a vendor’s fluorescent jacket yelling at passers-by to get their copy of the magazine; and if she’s pregnant the long hours on her feet are going to exhaust her.
Today’s discussion was an intriguing mix of politicians, corporate big wigs and Big Issue vendors and employees. The common link? Everyone was female. And everyone wants this enterprise to work.
We were there to film the proceeding and create social media content; we were there to help spread the word.
The idea behind the Women’s Subscription Enterprise is to sell annual mail subscriptions of the fortnightly Big Issue publication to businesses, which will then fund a variety of job opportunities at the magazine for homeless women. This first year has a target of 9000 subscriptions. This will create 90 jobs.
Once women have had the opportunity to develop skills and experience they will then be able to seek new jobs and move forward. The positive cycle continues when other disadvantaged women looking for stepping-stones into the workforce fill their positions.
And, of course, there is no cap on the numbers. If The Big Issue sells more than 9000 subscriptions then more jobs will be created.
Two of today’s panel are current Big Issue vendors. We met 29 year old Sheynell who left home at 14 after experiencing sexual abuse, only to discover life on the streets has its own set of dangers. She wound up in substance abuse and now holds a criminal record. “It’s very hard to [try] to get a job or anything like that. Some people [just] look at you as a criminal and don’t even give you a second chance or anything like that. They judge you straight up. It’s very hard to get by every day, to just pick up your bag and move around from place to place”. Now she just wants to leave the past behind and move forward.
Alongside her was the remarkably positive Clarissa, 44, who maintains a bright outlook on her future despite having been homeless since a breakdown with her foster parents at 17. Her disability benefit doesn’t provide enough for her to live on and she’s looking for a job in a safe environment where she can develop skills for the future. “I’d like to see myself in a job [which is] stable and long term. I’d like to see myself with financial security. It’d just be nice [that] if I need something when I’m living in a place I could go and buy myself something decent, something new”
The vendors were honest voices amongst an intimidating panel of powerful women including Sally Herman (General Manager People and Transformation, Westpac Banking Corporation) and The Hon Tanya Plibersek MP (Minister for Housing; Minister for the Status of Women). The latter blooming in pregnancy, being whisked in late and out early amongst election duties, but keen to stress her support of the venture as well as the “social, emotional and psychological benefit that comes from being part of the workforce”, that returning to the workforce can help rebuild “those social connections [and] self-esteem and [make you feel] like you’re a member of the community again”.
Sally Herman talked about her reasons for supporting this enterprise to “create a more inclusive equitable and responsible society and economy” and recognises it’s easy for her to just sit in head office and decide what she will and won’t spend the bank’s money on.
She says the combined social conscience of the 40,000 employees at Westpac pushed her to support this worthwhile enterprise – many buy The Big Issue already, although she was keen to stress that she won’t let corporate subscriptions impact street sales. Interestingly, the total Westpac workforce is the same number as women sleeping rough in Australia every night. That puts the sheer scale of this into perspective.
Kirstie Papanikolou is now Vendor Support Manager for the Big Issue, Melbourne. She had a lucky break on a traineeship scheme for homeless teenagers by The Body Shop that quite literally changed her life. Having worked hard to change her situation she is now the magazine’s longest serving employee at 14 years. She summed up her experiences, ““I’m married today. I’ve got 2 young boys. I own my own home. I have a full time job and wonderful family and friend support networks. You know, if someone had have said that 16 years ago, I would have said no, I’d probably be dead by now”.
Kirstie’s story is living proof that such schemes can work, that to be given a chance is what these women want.
Westpac has bought 100 subscriptions so far; yet this will create just one job. Other corporations have subscribed as well, but it feels like a long way from the 9000 target. Yet, with a $150 subscription fee I can’t help thinking that all of us - sitting there checking emails on iPhones, buzzing on our daily $3 coffees whilst taking the free food for granted - could do worse than to spread the word. In the grand scheme of things it’s not huge outlay, and it offers an opportunity to a lot of women out there that at the moment, quite literally, have no hope.
The Dubs has taken out a subscription to The Big Issue, bringing the Women’s Social Enterprise one closer to the 9000 target.
Check out The Dubs filming of the event on the WSE Facebook page next week: http://www.facebook.com/TheWSE
Keep your ears peeled for ABC Radio’s coverage of the event.