How do you react when you come across homeless people on the street? Homelessness is something that can happen to anyone, if they lose access to the means of earning a living. Last year’s attempt to drive the homeless out of a park in Taipei’s Wanhua District by hosing them down was very contentious. The practice was seen as inhumane and certainly not a solution to the problem of homelessness, but neither are welfare handouts or members of the public giving money to beggars viable long-term solutions. What disadvantaged people need is to be given a chance: a stable job with a legitimate income.
The Big Issue, which operates based on the social enterprise model — using an economic vehicle to carry out social participation and thereby achieve a social purpose — is a magazine providing exactly one such “chance” for homeless and socially disadvantaged people to earn a living for themselves.
The Big Issue Taiwan was granted a publishing license in November 2009 after its chairman and editor-in-chief Fines Lee met with The Big Issue founder John Bird, who gave Lee the go-ahead after Lee’s presentation. In the following months of preparation, re-editing and positioning, the first Taiwan edition was published in April 2010. As of today, 30 editions have been published. The magazine, with a circulation of 30,000, is turning a profit, mainly from advertising — and Lee revealed that he is considering expanding its vending locations to southern Taiwan in future.
The Big Issue — one of the UK’s leading social businesses — was initiated by The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick and founded by Anita’s husband Gordon Roddick and social entrepreneur Bird in London in September 1991. The magazine is a member of the International Network of Street Papers (INSP), and as of today, it is also produced and sold in different languages in about 10 countries, including Australia beginning in 1996, Japan in 2003, and also South Africa, South Korea, Namibia, Kenya, Malawi, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Taiwan.
To become a seller, one must be homeless or socially disadvantaged. All sellers undergo training and internship, and they wear ID badges, which include the seller’s photo and seller number. There are currently 60 sellers regularly shouting “The Big Issue! NT$100 a copy!” in the vicinity of the top 50 MRT stations in Taipei and New Taipei City. Initially, a seller gets 10 copies for free so he or she can earn NT$1,000 after selling all 10 copies. Then, the seller buys each copy for NT$50, which is half the cover price. Several sellers have already experienced an improvement in their lives and their psychological well-being. This echoes, “[Our work] will have kept us out of greater trouble,” written by UK-based Swiss writer Alain de Botton at the end of his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.
Once a successful dot-comer, Lee has now shifted his career to the publishing industry and introduced the social enterprise model to Taiwan — successfully creating jobs for the homeless and the disadvantaged. The Big Issue Taiwan’s target readers are the “Y” generation, office workers of the Internet generation, MRT commuters, and others, most of whom are between the ages of 20 and 35. Given that the content is key to maintaining readership, the seven full-time staffers and dozens of contributing reporters from all over the world are constantly working hard not only to get paid, but also to produce a quality magazine to attract readers. Based on the idea of “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish,” as well as objective and unbiased reporting, the magazine aims at covering important global issues concerning past and future. The contents include global consciousness, business and technology, culture, design, and other comprehensive reporting and commentary focusing on a wide range of issues.