Separation from family was one of the most painful challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, but for some of our vendors, the joy of being surrounded by loved ones is undercut by prejudiced assumptions.
Last year, we interviewed Ramona, who sells Big Issue North in Manchester. “My childhood was very good, thank you to God,” she said. “I grew up in Romania. I come from a very big family. My mum had 16 children. I had a large family around me – many cousins, aunties and uncles.”
Now, she has a large family of her own, selling Big Issue North to support her children, aged between two and 15.
While much of the Western world views the nuclear family of a husband, wife and 2.4 children as the default, it is far more common in other parts of the world for people to live in large, multigenerational households, to raise children communally, or at least to be in frequent contact with immediate and more distant relatives.
Tragically, vendors who were born overseas often face harsh criticism from some people who view British attitudes towards family as normal and natural.
Rumours frequently circulate regarding Romanian vendors, as sceptics claim that gang members fraudulently buy copies of Big Issue North and force others to sell it, driving them to and from their pitches. This is rooted in several misconceptions.
Firstly, it is not possible for anyone to fraudulently buy the magazine. This is because, while homelessness was a prerequisite for selling Big Issue North when we first started out, this is no longer the case – we are here for anyone who needs us, whether or not they have a home, bank account, ID, experience, qualifications, or fluency in English.
Vendors do, however, have to register with their nearest office, either in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds or Sheffield, before they can buy magazines, and with around 250 – 350 vendors working at any one time, our frontline staff quickly get to know vendors by face and name.
Secondly, and most importantly, though, the vendors, usually men, mistaken for gang operatives are in fact simply fortunate enough to come from large, loving families.
To save time and money, it is common for large families in which multiple members sell Big Issue North to pool financial resources to purchase a car, which one member can then use to buy everyone’s magazines for the week and to drive their partner, siblings, parents, children, cousins, aunts or uncles who also sell the magazine to and from their pitches.
As well as leaving vendors with more time to sell the magazine, this is an investment that saves money compared to multiple relatives buying public transport tickets to the same location, as well as providing long-term benefits.
During the six months England spent in lockdown, for instance, vendors with driving licences and their own transportation were able to take on delivery work, providing for themselves and their families during the most difficult period many had ever faced.
Moreover, we have more registered pitches than we have vendors, meaning that nobody is excluded from selling the magazine.
In fact, the more vendors we have, the more other vendors benefit, as the £1.50 vendors pay to buy each issue of Big Issue North is reinvested in the services we provide, such as helping vendors experience homelessness to access accommodation.
With an eighth of our vendors having no contact with relatives, those who do perhaps cherish them more than ever before since Covid-19, and it is a tragedy that any should lose sales, often desperately needed to support dependants, because of their good fortune in having many people around them who love and care for them.