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Magazine Finds a Home

Publishing: Big Issue, which aims to help the homeless help themselves, premieres today in L.A.

April 02, 1998|BEVERLY BEYETTE | 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.

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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 canteen.

"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 register."

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."

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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.

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