From Rags to Riches

"Charity Begins at Home" or so the old axiom goes. But does it really? For the many homeless of Britain it begins where they live - on the street.

Different countries have different traditions when it comes to charity. Christmas is a time when attention is particularly focused on the notion of philanthropy. In Poland on Christmas Eve many households leave a place set at the table for the lonely or those without a family of their own. How often does the seat get filled? Who can say?

This Christmas the British public are being asked by their government not to give money to street beggars! The Labour Party administration claims that many people who hang around railway stations and other public places asking for money are not homeless at all, but are, in the words of the government, merely "drug addicts".

People sympathetic to the plight of the homeless are being told to donate money to charities who specialize in caring for the destitute, or to offer beggars gifts of food or clothes instead of money. But if you are in London this Christmas and New Year and feel the urge to give money to the many beggars that can be seen living rough in the capital, then one of the best ways to help is to purchase a copy of The Big Issue weekly magazine. And you can have a good read at the same time.

Run for the homeless, The Big Issue is a success on many levels. It won a Magazine of the Year award in 1993, and sells 270,000 copies weekly, which translates into a readership of over one million, a figure which many other established British titles such as The Observer or The New Statesman would be pleased to attain. All profits are ploughed back into the magazine or diverted to The Big Issue Foundation, a charity that runs many social support programmes for the homeless.

From stars to street lights

Recent editions have covered a wide range of subjects, from an interview with David Beckham and Posh (aka Posh Spice or Victoria Adams) to the increasingly desperate plight of "household servants" in Britain. According to the magazine, these are paid little and often treated like slaves by their employers (and you thought slavery had been abolished in the UK!). Alongside features such as these are a news section and an arts and cultural review. A section called Street Lights is written by those who are, or were, homeless and want to share their experiences of life on the road.

The first issue was published 1991 as a response to the growing number of homeless forced to beg for money to keep heart and soul together. As George Orwell's book Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) illustrated, the homeless have for a long time been a spectre haunting European cities.

The 1980s, however, saw an enormous increase in people sleeping rough in Britain, as many fled the unemployment blackspots of northern England and came to southern cities, especially London, where jobs were relatively abundant. But as Joanna Blackburn, Public Relations officer at The Big Issue, points out, a classic catch-22 situation was there waiting for them when they arrived. "It's virtually impossible to get a job in Britain without a permanent address, but it's very difficult to get somewhere to live if you don't have a job. No job, no home. No home, then no job." She concludes: "These people are trapped."

Culture clash

At the southern end of Waterloo Bridge in London, by the banks of the River Thames, stand the Royal National Theatre, the National Film Theatre and the Royal Festival Hall. In stark contrast to this centre of London's cultural activity, are the subways close by - a warren of stark passages - which offer some relief from the cold at night. They have become a Mecca for the homeless.

The place is littered with the cardboard boxes and old mattresses that they use as beds. It became so popular there in the 1980s that each person had their own, much-prized space that they would guard carefully. It gave them a sense of security and became so permanent a fixture that the locals gave the area a nickname - Cardboard City. This was also the name of a theatre play directed by the now famous Oscar-winner (for American Beauty) Sam Mendes.

This almost Dickensian scene was repeated throughout the towns and cities of Britain. Today the housing charity Shelter estimates there are around 100,000 homeless people in London alone, who are either in temporary accommodation - such as hostels and bed and breakfasts - or simply living on the streets. It is this massive social problem that inspired a team of journalists to produce the first edition of The Big Issue.

Self-help philosophy

But what makes The Big Issue more than just a well written magazine with a loyal readership is the fact that it is actually sold by the homeless themselves. "The homeless come into our offices and we assess their needs, give them an identity badge, and assign them a place to sell the magazines," explains Blackburn. They receive training and sign a code of conduct. And then? "They keep 60p in every pound they take and give the rest back. That way they get money and provide a service at the same time. It is not begging." And it helps the homeless retain a sense of dignity.

Encouraged by its success in Britain The Big Issue has become an international phenomenon. With 17 titles currently throughout Europe, from La Rue in Paris to The Depths in St Petersburg, the homeless are being encouraged to help themselves by getting out in all weathers to sell the magazine. And now The Big Issue has come to Poland as well.

'My Giganci' (We The Giants, though the title is a play on 'być na gigancie', the Polish for people running away from home) came out in major cities throughout Poland in the autumn. Distributed by MONAR, one of the largest NGOs working in the field of social care in Poland, it currently has a print run of 10,000. The magazine shares printers with Fleszer, the Hungarian version of The Big Issue. Kenderessy Attila, who supervises both magazines from his office in Budapest, says that although initial sales are encouraging, certain obstacles have to be negotiated before the Polish version manages to reach the readership levels of its British counterpart.

Tainted with prejudice?

"For a start, the street sellers are telling us that the price (only three zlotys) is simply too high," he said. Another problem is that a large amount of a magazine's income comes from advertising revenue. So far My Giganci has attracted little interest at all from advertisers. This is a problem being experienced by all "street magazines" throughout Central and Eastern Europe. "Most companies say they like the design and they like the contents," says Attila. They would be happy to advertise in it if it was not the homeless who sold it. "They don't want their products to be associated with the homeless at all!"

Attila blames what he sees as the lack of a "charity culture" in this part of the world. "The culture of giving is not as developed as in the West," he argues. "There were no real charities in the communist world. We were told, of course, that we didn't need them. But programmes like selling street papers can contribute to the development of this culture, once people understand that in this way we can give some dignity to those who sell the magazine - and entertain the reader at the same time." So, will 'We The Giants' ever become a giant seller like its big brother in Britain? Only time will tell.

If you want to donate to 'My Giganci', or find out more on how to buy a copy, then contact: