LA Big Issue premieres: Making Change supporters object FWD

Tom Boland (
Thu, 2 Apr 1998 22:52:38 -0800 (PST)

Thursday, April 2, 1998


By BEVERLY BEYETTE, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

     A small band of street vendors will fan out across Los Angeles today
hawking a new monthly with a smiling Jack Nicholson--photographed with a
London street person--on its cover and this teaser line: "What the Hell Is
the Big Issue?"
     Those who fork out $1 will find inside a message from founder / editor
in chief John Bird, explaining the Big Issue's mission: Help the homeless
help themselves. Sixty cents of every $1 goes to the vendors, most of whom
are homeless.
     "We're a British import of an American invention," says Bird, 52, an
up-from-the-streets Londoner who, with the Body Shop's chairman Gordon
Roddick, launched the Big Issue in Great Britain in 1991, inspired by
Street News, a New York paper sold by the homeless.
     Bird emphasizes that the Big Issue is not a publication for the
homeless but, rather, a general interest magazine sold by the homeless,
enabling them "to make a legitimate income" and avoid spiraling into a life
of crime.
      Rather than "lecturing anyone for sitting at home watching television
while there are people on the streets," Bird says, the Big Issue will use
pop culture to help put important ideas across to a core readership of 18-
to 35-year-olds. Some writers are homeless; some aren't. All are paid.
          * * *
      A self-described "poacher-turned-gamekeeper," Bird knows about the
criminal life and about turning it around, having survived a Dickensian
childhood that included three years in an orphanage and an adolescence in
and out of custody for crimes including housebreaking and car theft.
     No "lily-livered do-good liberal," as he puts it, he has also been
homeless. "On the run from the police," he chanced to meet Roddick in an
Edinburgh pub one day in 1967. They hit it off and, 24 years later, when
Roddick decided to bankroll the Big Issue, he asked Bird, who had
straightened his life out and moved into publishing, to get it started.
     In the U.K., the magazine has a weekly circulation of 300,000 to
450,000, boasts some 1 million readers and has spawned the Big Issue
Foundation, which provides support services and job training programs to
get people off the streets.
     In 1993, Bird was honored as the British Society of Magazine Editors'
editor of the year and, in 1995, Queen Elizabeth named him a Member of the
Order of the British Empire. He's running for mayor of London next year.
     With "Coming Up From the Streets" as its motto, the Big Issue has
spread throughout the U.K. and to Australia and South Africa. At first,
Bird acknowledges, it was a pity purchase but today, he says, sells because
it's a good read.
     The L.A. premiere issue has an interview with actor-activist Martin
Sheen and a tongue-in-cheek piece on L.A. on $10 a day. The latter's
suggested strategies include queuing up whenever one spots a film company
     "I used to do that in London," Bird says.
     In London, the Big Issue snagged an early interview with Tony Blair,
who at the time was a candidate for prime minister, and took on then-PM
John Major, for insisting that there was no need for anyone to be living on
the streets.
      "We got an apology," Bird says.
      The magazine has campaigned for a minimum wage and backed a
successful movement to permit the homeless to vote through a "rolling
     It scored a publicity coup when Prince Charles, visiting its offices,
ran into an old school friend who had become alcoholic and fallen on bad
times. No, not a setup, Bird insists. The prince later wrote about the
plight of the homeless in the Big Issue.
     Ted Hayes, an advocate for L.A.'s homeless and founder-director of
downtown's Dome Village, saw the Big Issue when he was in London in 1995.
He sought out Bird and told him, "This paper ought to be in L.A." In 1997,
they again met in London, and Hayes said, "John, we have a big panhandling
crisis in L.A." People, fed up with giving, wanted a fair exchange.
     Yes, Hayes says, many of the county's 200,000 or more homeless would
be skeptical about making money selling a magazine, but he believes it "can
be a catalyst in moving people toward a work mentality."
          * * *
      Here's how the Big Issue works: Vendors get the first 20 copies free
and may buy additional copies at 40 cents each. In London, Bird says, a
vendor can make $300 a week. Vendors must be homeless, struggling formerly
homeless people or "vulnerably accommodated" with no income. Each wears an
ID badge and promises to do no drug dealing while selling, to give change
and to be polite.
     The arrival of the Big Issue has not been without controversy.
Supporters of Making Change, a Santa Monica street publication that debuted
in November, have painted him as an imperialistic carpetbagger here to make
big bucks to take home to England.
     Jennafer Waggoner, editor of Making Change, says, "If I were to open a
paper in London, I believe there would be a problem. They came into town
and acted like we didn't exist."  She says the Big Issue is "McDonalding
the street paper movement" with a corporate approach that does not fully
involve the homeless in decision making.
     Making Change, which operates on a shoestring and claims a circulation
of 10,000 in Santa Monica and L.A., is, she says, "written by homeless
people, controlled by homeless people and sold by homeless people." At $1 a
copy, each vendor keeps 90 cents. There are no ads.
     "The Big Issue is about 80% entertainment and advertising and 20%
social issues," she adds, "all fluffed up with good-looking people," while
Making Change is 100% about social issues and human rights. "If this was
about a product, we could have people selling toothpaste on the street."
     The Big Issue is not a Santa Monica publication, Bird says. Though
temporarily housed there, it will move soon to West L.A. Plans are to sell
it not only in Santa Monica but also in Venice, Hollywood, West Hollywood,
Fox Hills and the Crenshaw area. In time, he wants to cover the Southland.
And, he says, "Any money that is raised in Southern California will be
spent in the streets" here.
      Within a year, Bird hopes, the L.A. edition will go weekly, with a
healthy ad base, as in the U.K., where advertisers include British Telecom,
the English National Opera and body-piercing parlors.


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