There is unrest in Leytonstone Tube station. For years, less fortunate people have used the covered areas inside and around the station for shelter, warmth, and in the hope that passers-by might spare them some change. But more recently, there have been altercations between Big Issue sellers who gather at the station’s exits, and the homeless people who do not sell the charity-run magazine, and instead just beg.
In the depths of the station, and through the echoing tunnels up into the outside world, the raised voices and scuffling could be heard on a cold winter’s night. “It’s not fucking fair on the rest of us mate”, one homeless man with a large jacket and warm hat, shouted at a Big Issue vendor in his immediately recognisable red vest. “Clear off, fuck off”. The helplessness and hopelessness in his voice is audible, and the Big Issue vendor almost looks guilty, maybe even embarrassed.
The Big Issue Foundation is a charity that offers people in need the chance to keep a roof over their heads by selling copies of the magazine. Rough sleepers, people in temporary accommodation, those in danger of losing their homes and unemployed people can all apply. Vendors purchase the magazine for £1.25 from the Big Issue Foundation, and sell them to customers at £2.50 – the mark-up is theirs to keep. Famously, it’s “a hand up, not a hand-out”.
So what causes the homeless people who occupy Leytonstone station to turn against people in pretty much the same boat as them?
Headlines such as “Stop Giving Cash To Homeless People, Londoners Are Warned,” and “People Pretending To Be Homeless Are Raking In £20,000 A Year”, are being churned out on a weekly basis. It all adds to the impression of homeless people as greedy and aggressive.
A YouGov survey found that 50% of people aged 40+ felt ‘annoyed’ when they were asked for money by a homeless person in the street. Nearly 40% percent felt ‘intimidated’. Among 18-39 year-olds, 29% felt ‘intimidated’.
The same survey found that 33% of younger people felt ‘guilty’ when asked for money by the homeless, whereas among those aged 40+, only 11% said they felt guilty.
People in financial distress are having to work against the odds. In Leytonstone Tube station, a ‘No Busking, No Begging’ sign, with a fixed penalty of £200 is nailed to the wall.
When I asked Waltham Forest Council whether it was effective to impose a £200 fine on someone who is already begging for money, the reply was: “may be, maybe not. It serves as a sort of deterrent but I don’t know if it really works”.
So where does the £200 fine go? “It does come back to the council, yeah,” the council representative replied.
Restrictions on begging and busking seem to do more harm than good, and media stories that discourage giving money to homeless people are surely misguided.
If you’re uneasy about handing over money, why not a warm coffee, or a sandwich? In truth, we have so much more to give than money.
My heart was broken in the lead-up to Christmas, when I spotted a sign held up by a homeless man I passed every morning on my way through the tube station. It read “I may be homeless, but that doesn’t mean I don’t deserve a smile or a ‘Merry Christmas’.”
We can always give warmth and kindness. And that doesn’t cost a penny.
The Big Issue Foundation’s annual Big London Night Walk took place on Friday 3 March 2017. The walk raised money to help change the lives of the Big Issue vendors, aiding them in their journey away from homelessness. The 12.5 mile walk through London began at 9pm, with an estimated finishing time of 3am. Participants were encouraged to take rest stops around the city, to get a glimpse of what a night on the streets might be like.