A bitter chill cuts into my bones as I stand shivering on the edge of the pavement, clutching a handful of Big Issue magazines.
It is 11am in the centre of Cambridge and I have already endured several hours of what I can, at best, politely describe as a mixed reaction from passers-by.
There are those who happily stop for a chat and perhaps buy a copy of the magazine, which is sold by the homeless. And there are others who stride past and abusively heckle me, saying, for example: ‘Get a proper job!’
The Big Issue launched 29 years ago in response to the growing number of rough sleepers on the streets of London and offered the opportunity to earn an income through selling a magazine to the public.
Like any product, it has had to adapt to changing technology and to people’s evolving spending habits. Most recently, the magazine has piloted a trial scheme in seven cities in which sellers have been given contactless card readers to accept payment for the £2.50 magazine. Deemed a success, similar gadgets are being handed out nationwide – with, it is hoped, perhaps half of all 2,000 Big Issue vendors taking part.
Toby Walne selling the Big Issue on the streets of Cambridge yesterday. Licensed vendors of the magazine are now using debit card readers to allow their customers to pay for the Big Issue. Like any product, it has had to adapt to changing technology and to people’s evolving spending habits
Inevitably, this has led to countless comments and jokes about beggars refusing to take coins and insisting on being given donations electronically.
So this is why I found myself on the chilly streets of Cambridge, to discover whether this experiment is working: are Big Issue sellers getting more money as a result of having contactless card readers, or do the public consider this a surreal development too far?
Home to numerous ‘Silicon Fen’ high-tech and pharmaceutical companies, parts of Cambridge are very wealthy and, with its liberal-minded student population, it is considered a good patch for Big Issue sellers.
According to property website Zoopla, the average house here costs £440,000. But Cambridge is also said to be the ‘most unequal’ city in the country, with one in ten households earning less than £16,518 a year.
Wrapped up against the wind outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I begin to try to attract passers-by. Most stare straight through me, as if I don’t exist.
The first person to engage is a middle-aged woman walking two cockapoos. She says: ‘I see you are struggling. No one should feel like an outcast and that is why I have stopped to talk. We all need support at some time – myself included.’ However, when I hand her my contactless payment machine to buy the magazine, she says: ‘I will only pay you cash – real money. I am not interested in these new-fangled card readers.’
Not a perfect start! Regardless, we have a good-natured chat and she tells me she is a self-employed writer and comedian called Judith Liddell-King. Within minutes, though, there are two other buyers. Having no loose change on them, they are happy to pay by credit card.
Toby Walne selling the Big Issue on the streets of Cambridge yesterday. Indeed, this is the thinking behind the new initiative – an electronic answer to those who say: ‘Sorry, I haven’t got any cash’
Indeed, this is the thinking behind the new initiative – an electronic answer to those who say: ‘Sorry, I haven’t got any cash.’
Anecdotally, there have been reports of sales rising and younger customers buying for the first time.
Russell Blackman, managing director of The Big Issue, has said: ‘Vendors are micro-entrepreneurs, effectively running their own small businesses. We have provided them with the opportunity to cater for customers’ needs and increase their ability to earn a legitimate income. We look forward to rolling out the initiative nationally, in an effort to improve financial inclusion for vendors.’
And Edward Hallett, managing director of card payments service iZettle UK, said: ‘It is fantastic to give even more sellers access to the tools they need to stay on top of consumer trends and manage in an increasingly cashless society.’
With the temperature hovering around 6C, shop assistant Haylee Bazen steps my way, saying: ‘You poor thing. I work in the shop opposite and I see you’re not having much luck. I will buy with a credit card, I never carry cash.’ I feel like giving her a hug.
The system works like this. Vendors buy the card reader for £11 (compared with the usual cost of about £35) and they must download an app on their mobile phone which links their bank account and card reader. (Yes, in 2020, the homeless have mobile phones and bank accounts.)
Big Issue has struck a deal with iZettle, which takes 4p for every £2.50 magazine purchase (a 1.75 per cent fee). Vendors have to buy the magazines at £1.25 so each contactless purchase means they pocket £1.21.
I’m next approached by a man in his late 50s who is keen to buy a copy. He tells me: ‘Had you not had the card reader, sadly you would not have had my custom. Usually I have money – but not today. It is good you offer choice.’
He tells me his name is Hugh Barton, a retired financial manager.
My guide for the day is full-time Big Issue seller Lee Welham, who says the job requires having the hide of a rhino – preferably thermal-lined.
He adopts a turn-the-other-cheek attitude to those few he says cruelly dehumanise him. Black humour is often the only way he can get through the day.
A favourite quip to encourage sales is: ‘I need a volunteer to start a queue!’ However, he concedes this joke is mostly met with deathly silence.
Like the majority of the homeless, he has suffered personal tragedy – and selling the Big Issue is part of rebuilding his life. He says people often have a misconception that sellers only want the money for drink or drugs. Another factor is that about a third of sellers are now East Europeans – often from the Roma gipsy community – and they exploit a legal loophole which enables them to register as ‘self-employed’. As a result they are entitled to a National Insurance number, which allows them access to a panoply of welfare payments such as housing and child benefits.
This was not exactly what the pioneer John Bird had in mind when he launched the Big Issue as an initiative to encourage the homeless to break out of a cycle of welfare dependency.
Lee ended up on the streets after losing access to his son last year and then suffered a mental breakdown. He’s out in all weathers, 12 hours a day, selling 40 copies a day if he’s lucky. So he takes home no more than £50 after costs. Without a permanent address, he has been unable to get full employment and lives in a hostel.
At the end of my day, with my fingers going blue and numb in the cold, I have sold just five copies. A miserable profit of just over £6.
My final sale was to a pharmaceuticals consultant called Jonathan Marshall, 52. He said: ‘I am impressed with this technology. Whether you like it or not, we must all move with the times.’
If his view of this new world of the homeless harnessing banking apps, mobile phones, credit cards and card readers is shared by others, this could well be the future.
A third of all high-street purchases are now made using a contactless card reader rather than cash.
Last year, a report by a Government-backed think-tank highlighted how this can cause problems to those who prefer to use notes and coins. Currently, cost-cutting banks are removing cash machines at a rate of 500 a month.
To compound matters, according to the consumer body Which?, a quarter of the remaining 60,000-strong network of machines charge fees of up to £2 to access our own money – raking in £104 million a year in revenue.
In addition, more than 6,000 bank branches have been closed in the past decade, with the total network cut by a third.
Toby Walne selling the Big Issue on the streets of Cambridge yesterday. For Big Issue sellers, apart from the risk of losing sales because people think they can’t be that poor if they can afford a mobile phone and contactless credit card reader, there are several benefits of a contactless payment system
For Big Issue sellers, apart from the risk of losing sales because people think they can’t be that poor if they can afford a mobile phone and contactless credit card reader, there are several benefits of a contactless payment system.
Adam Taylor, of cash machine network provider Link, says: ‘It might mean the homeless are less vulnerable to theft – and having money in a bank account can help them budget.’
Across the country, Big Issue vendors have applauded the new system. One, in Norwich, has said: ‘Before all this started, I had no ID, no bank account and a rubbish phone and now I have a decent smartphone, a passport, a bank account and a card reader. I now feel ready for a cashless future.’
Adam Taylor, of cash machine network provider Link, says: ‘It might mean the homeless are less vulnerable to theft – and having money in a bank account can help them budget’
Another, based at Bristol Temple Meads railway station, said: ‘Since I started using my iZettle card reader, I have seen my sales increase by a third, which is incredible. It has been really important in attracting more customers.’
It is estimated that about 11 per cent of sellers have gone contactless – with one saying ‘going cashless gives me the edge over beggars and buskers’.
Contactless card or cash, after my experience on Bridge Street, Cambridge, on a near-freezing February day, I will never blindly walk past a Big Issue vendor again.
Indeed, I will gladly put my hand in my pocket – or happily proffer them my credit card.