Michael Costello, 76, Canary Wharf, London
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When I started off in life I could just walk in to places and get a job. But I found that my employment situation became extremely difficult starting from the Sixties when they set up agencies. After that I only got washing-up jobs, which I’m not very good at. I would have loved to have done scientific research because I have a PhD, and a degree in zoology and another in psychology. But I always had a poor opinion of myself and it sank further and further, having failed to get a job – partly because I’m just not very good at interviews.
I slept rough in Aberdeen in empty houses for a little while and then I came down to London and was squatting there for many years. One day I was speaking to a fellow squatter after The Big Issue had started up and I told him about my problems with washing up. He said, why don’t you try The Big Issue? I said I wasn’t homeless as my squat was my home, but he told me to go to The Big Issue and find out about it anyway. And that was the best bit of advice that I’ve ever received.
I told them my situation and the policy was that I would be classed as ex-homeless and that if I was unable to find other work I could continue selling The Big Issue. From the start, selling the magazine didn’t feel difficult, there were no real mishaps. Once there was a beggar who resented me being there and he knocked me over. Someone came over and bought an issue from me to make up for it. It was a better fit for me than dishwashing and I very much enjoy the contact with people.
I’ve been weathering this Covid business. I’ve got a pension now but I still need really to do the pitch so missing it is a pain. I use the extra money from my Big Issue sales to finance some wildlife work I do. I became known as somebody who didn’t ignore injured animals on the street and somehow my name got to an organisation. They used to call on me to clear birds out of lofts for free. I got quite a lot of these calls so it came to be quite burdensome and financially more than I could really afford. The only reason I was able to keep going was in addition to The Big Issue I had inherited some money from my mother.
Rescuing animals started when I was in Aberdeen studying. One night I went home late from the pub and I saw a seagull lying in the road unable to fly. I didn’t think I could help it but I put it on a bit of grass in the hope it would die peacefully rather than be run over, but in the morning it was still alive. I looked after it, feeding it fish, until eventually my girlfriend offered to drive me to a sanctuary in Hastings with it. They had a no-put-down policy and ever since then I’ve only dealt with sanctuaries like that.
My motto for treating animals is take it to the expert immediately. Don’t try and learn on the animal because you’ll probably kill it. That was what I did and I used to visit various sanctuaries for all the creatures – pigeons, foxes, badgers – that I helped. I still do this, but I don’t get so many calls and now I’m very physically infirm. But now I’m living near a woman who’s really excellent and can treat any animal, so I get them to her.
Very few good things have happened to me in my life, but one of them was meeting my partner. We’ve been together for 18 years now and she was homeless when I met her. Homelessness and joblessness can happen to anyone. The root of the problem is joblessness – I could probably have done quite OK doing menial jobs. Even if I’d become homeless I would have gone on going to warehouses, getting jobs and having enough money to lead a decent life without having to beg. The Big Issue has been a saviour for me, that’s beyond all doubt. It’s meant an income when I didn’t have one and it’s meant more importantly the ability to do my wildlife work. The kindness and humanity I see with people selling The Big Issue is a wonderful thing.
Canary Wharf Station, London, UK