Interview with Jim Graver, Big Issue

Jim talks about his 23 years at The Big Issue, its growth and expansion, and his views on eradicating homelessness

Interview with Jim Graver, Big Issue

Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?

Hi, my name is Jim Graver and I am the regional manager of the Big Issue in East Anglia, my responsibilities are for managing all front-line activities with our vendors including sales, stock control, discipline, pitch management and customer feedback.

I am the lead for all of our outlets in Norwich, Ipswich, Colchester, Peterborough and Cambridge.

How long have you worked at The Big Issue?

23 years. I first started in August 1995, just a few years after the organisation was set up and the company was developing itself outside of London. With minimal training myself and Jon Southgate built the area in to what it is today.

Why did you first join?

I had seen the magazine being sold in London and thought that it was a great idea and I was keen to find work which has in impact on the community around me, so when I came across the advert for the job I applied and was lucky enough to be chosen for the role.

What are the main aims of The Big Issue?

There are three main aims:

- To provide disenfranchised people with a legitimate income whilst offering support services to help them return to a mainstream lifestyle.

- To break down the barriers between mainstream society and homeless people.

- To provide an engaging and entertaining read.

How has the organisation changed over the years?

The organisation has changed a great deal over the years from a ‘shoot from the hip’ chaotic upstart of an organisation to a professional outfit servicing the needs of disenfranchised people throughout the country whilst supporting other street papers throughout the world.

The organisation grew from just a street paper to include the Big Issue Foundation (which provides support services to our vendors) and more recently The Big Issue Invest, which is an investment group providing money and advice to social enterprises across the country.

What are the best parts of the job?

The massively wide variety of people I get to meet. I have met some hugely colourful and interesting characters over the years. 

And what do you find hardest?

Death - I have known so many people who have died throughout my career, the average life expectancy of homeless people is shockingly low and ranges in the mid forties.

What has been your biggest success? 

Developing my region from a pile of papers and a bank paying-in book into a five outlet setup delivering opportunity to disenfranchised people across four counties 

There is a lot of contradictory advice over how best to help a homeless person, ie. whether to give money, or food etc. What is your advice on how someone can help?

People often worry that giving money to the homeless will be spent on drugs or alcohol and often this may be true but is certainly not always the case. Generally most homeless people have good access to food via soup runs and other agencies so this is less of an issue. The best way to decide whether to give money, helpful goods or food to a homeless person is to interact with them directly, talk to them, hear their story and develop a relationship with them. The key word in the phrase homeless person is ‘person’ they are just like you and me, I have met every different archetype of person in my career, they are as varied as any other sector of society.

Has the shift towards digital consumption impacted The Big Issue at all?

The shift towards digital consumption is now beginning to be a threat to our future, as physical media sales are declining, but there’s also the downturn in the high street footfall.

How does The Big Issue stay competitive in that digital space? 

The Big Issue has developed and is researching further ways to allow consumers to access our content via mobile devices whilst still supporting our vendors. One of the ways we are looking at is a QR code system, whereby our content can be downloaded after paying our vendors for the content.

Can you tell us about some of the other work The Big Issue Company oversees?

The Big Issue signposts vendors to support services by developing and maintaining quality relationships with partner agencies as well as providing those services ‘in house’ via The Big Issue Foundation. We now also have developed The Big Issue Invest, which is an investment group providing money and advice to social enterprises across the country.

What is one misconception you want to challenge about The Big Issue or its vendors?

There are two main misconceptions I would like to highlight, the first is that we only work with street homeless people. In fact we will work with anyone at any stage of their journey to mainstream employment regardless of their housing situation, most of our vendors have somewhere to stay although we do of course also support rough sleepers as well.

The second message I would like to promote is that our vendors have to buy the magazine up front before selling on to their customers, the vendors also have to budget themselves with regard to stock levels as we do not offer 'sale or return'.

The current price of the magazine is £1.25 to vendors and £2.50 to the public.

What needs to change to end homelessness? Can it ever be eradicated?

It is my personal belief that eradicating homelessness completely will not happen in my lifetime, there will always be certain individuals that wish to live outside mainstream society whilst having the capacity to make their own decisions.

The main things that would help is money for support services regarding housing, mental health services, adult social care, and also affordable housing, of which some needs to be supported housing.

If you could send a message back to 16-year-old Jim, what would you say?

Stop worrying, you cannot help everyone, focus on making change in your community and it’s not your fault.

So many have already followed in my footsteps in many ways, as I have helped launch the careers of many volunteers and staff members over the years, by opening their eyes to the underbelly of our society and seeing them on a path of working in this sector.

Author

Tom Inniss

Tom Inniss Voice Team

Tom is the Editor of Voice. He is a politics graduate and holds a masters in journalism, with particular interest in youth political engagement and technology. He is also a mentor to our Voice Contributors, and champions our festivals programme, including the reporter team at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe..

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