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Vendors Lee and Andre Take On The London Marathon

On 3rd October, Big Issue vendors Andre Rostant and Lee Welham are taking on the London Marathon to give back to an organisation that they believe in.

Andre has been selling the magazine in London since 2012. He became homeless after a domestic fallout which left both him and his kids without secure accommodation.

After several years as a Big Issue vendor, Andre was offered the opportunity to sell the magazine in the lobby of a law firm.

The Big Issue Foundation has organised placements within office spaces for vendors and has found them to have a significant impact. Social barriers are broken down as Big Issue vendors are welcomed inside, viewed as a valued member of a wider team and have an opportunity to develop their skill base.

As part of this placement, Andre was also given some work experience. Andre had previous experience as a legal secretary and it soon became apparently to the law firm that he had more to give. They offered him a part time role as an office assistant which he is still doing today.

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“I’m very happy to have the security of the role however working 3 days a week can still leave me with no money at the end of the month. The kids don’t care when payday is, they just always need a fiver for something form the bank of Dad.”

He continues to sell the magazine to help top up his income. The additional income he receives from the magazine can be a real lifeline. Plus, it also enables him to have a good work/life balance so he can be there for his kids.

Selling The Big Issue really helped Andre renew his faith in himself. It was almost like a foot back into the real world. Not just financially but also the human contact. Andre has built up wonderful relationships with his customers. They are why he still loves to sell the magazine.

Andre has great ambitions for the future. Just before he became homeless, he completed his MSc in Anthropology and Psychology and would really like to complete his doctorate. And for those of you that remember Andres story from 2018, he still wants to be the “Muffin Man” and have his own business selling muffins.

Andre is running the London Marathon to give back to an organisation that he feels has helped change his life. Beyond the financial benefits, selling the magazine helped him to maintain focus and create a structure to his life. Going out the door and doing something productive really lifted his spirits. The Big Issue saved Andre from “wallowing in homelessness”.

“I just really like the concept of The Big Issue. You are in control of your own salvation. It is there to help you help yourself and I just think that’s a much healthier way of taking things forward.”

The lockdown was tough for Andre who missed the in-person connections with his customers. He was grateful he was able to continue working at the law firm from home. This combined with additional support from The Big Issue ensured he was able to continue to keep food on the table for his family throughout the lockdowns.

Andre is excited for the marathon this October. He has completed one before so he knows he can go the distance. He walks a lot in his everyday life and is planning to get some longer training sessions in so he is ready to take on the 26.2 miles on 3rd October.

It is important for Andre to support The Big Issue with this challenge so more vendors like him can be supported.

“Homelessness can feel all consuming but there is always a way to escape that feeling. The Big Issue offers you a way to deal with or cope with being homeless.  Beyond selling, the Foundation provide logistical support that it can be hard to find elsewhere. They can guide you to the best services or do something like help you get a suit if you need one for an interview. The Foundation is a facilitator. And I like that they have a degree of independence because it helps make sure they can really do what is best rather than being steered by someone else’s agenda.”

Lee Welham, who sells the magazine in Cambridge, will also be coming down to London to take on one of the worlds most loved races.

Lee first sold the magazine when he was 18 for a few years and returned in 2018 following a breakdown.

Long before he was a vendor, Lee started working funfair at the age of 13, loved it. He loved it.

Life took a big turn when he was kicked out of his mums at 16.

“I did my GCSE’s in a hostel. Next door there was a professional con man and he could see I had the gift of the gab. I fell in with the wrong people and broke the law. Because of my criminal record I found it hard to get a job. But my sales skills I developed back at the fair were a perfect fit for selling the Big Issue. I met another vendor who encouraged me to give it a go. I was quickly able to build up my sales and did well.”

Lee built his confidence back up and used is money from selling The Big Issue to invest in a business. Things were going well until his relationship broke down.

“We had a son together, he is ten now but I haven’t seen him in four years. Our communication just broke down and we ended up going to family court.  As time went on, it slowly wore me down and I just lost myself.”

Lee found himself homeless and spent 265 days rough sleeping on and off.  Lee lives with bipolar disorder and during this time he found himself slowly falling into depression. He describes the time as living in a limbo, not wanting to live but also not wanting to die.

“To come back to The Big Issue I was mortified. You never think you’re gonna be back. You don’t think you’re going to make the same mistakes twice. I was worried about people judging me. I mean, I used to judge people.

“But once I started, I worked hard to really become part of the community in Cambridge. Not only does he have his regular customers but Lee has really got to know the people behind the businesses in his area and also has regular conversations with Masters from the colleges as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury”.

Not long later, an opportunity arose as The Big Issue was looking for a franchisee in the area and Lee was keen to progress. Franchisee’s work in areas where there may be several vendors but no office. They sell the magazines on to the vendors in the area and check in to see if there any issues that they may need to feed back to the office.

“I heard the job was going and I wanted it so I asked all my customers and people I knew in the community to write recommendations. And lots of them did. So basically, as there isn’t an office in Cambridge, what I do is I sell the magazine on to vendors. One of the business women I had built a connection with was also willing to store the magazines for me for free which would save the company finding and renting somewhere.

“But I try and do more than just sell the magazines. I try and support new vendors with things like how to set up their card readers. Help them try to get ID. You can’t rescue everyone but you can try to help.

“It would be nice to get to the stage where I just sell to the vendors and don’t sell to the customer anymore. I love being a franchisee. I try and treat it as a business. Although I’m helping the vendors take steps to move on, I’m also trying to find new vendors. I talk to people who are begging about becoming vendors and abut all the positives that come with it.

“Lockdown was hard. It really affected my mental health. Even when I was homeless I managed to see people and work but having those things taken away from me was so hard. And financially, Universal Credit was not enough to get by on. I was glad Big Issue was there to give me some financial support when I needed it.

“I’m in a house share now but my plan is to clear my debt and then go the council and bid to get my own place. It’ll take about two years but it’s just good to know there is a direction forward”.

Lee has lots of idea for the future. He would like to run his own business again and would like it to be a social enterprise. Not just making money but giving back to help others who may have been in difficult situations like himself. But for now his focus is on completing the London Marathon.

“I decided to do the London Marathon because Big Issue worked hard to raise over £1million to support us. We got looked after during lockdown. The government didn’t furlough us, without the support of The Big Issue we would have been screwed. Even the conversations. It was great to have regular conversations with the team. You all treat me so well. Especially when I lost all faith in myself.

“Vendors don’t have ID or a bank account or even a phone. These things can be life changing and The Big Issue Foundation gives them everything they need. Getting every vendor formal ID would make such a huge difference because it really is the first steppingstone to getting a regular job.

“I’m hoping to raise lots of money for the Foundation. I’d love to be sponsored by Thomas Tuchel, the Chelsea FC manager. I’m a big Chelsea fan and so it was great to see them win the Champions League. Just like the team, maybe he can bring the best performance out of me!”

You can sponsor Andre and Lee here: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/Team/LondonMarathon2021AndreandLee

Photography by Dale Brodie

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