Robert Whitmarsh, Morrison’s Wood Green, London
Robert enjoys the company of customers on his pitch, with his dog Boycie by his side – and Boycie enjoys the sausage rolls that come as a perk of the job
I ended up homeless in Essex about a year ago after struggling with some mental health issues and falling into drink and drugs and the sort. Nobody wants to be homeless, but I definitely didn’t want to be homeless where I grew up because I’d see people I knew from school and it was too easy to fall back into bad habits, so I decided to get away from it all and be homeless outside the Tower of London.
I didn’t beg, because you feel down on yourself as it is without having to ask people for money, so I got work collecting money for a homeless charity. But I found out that not all the money collected was going where the public thought it was. Only 20 per cent of it went into funding care packages and food banks, and the other 80 per cent was going into the pockets of others, so my heart just wasn’t in it.
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I didn’t really think about The Big Issue until I saw a fella selling it in Whitechapel and I thought, “I’ll give that a go.” I happened to be about five minutes away from the office in Wood Green when I rang. They told me I didn’t need a proof of address to get started, so I turned up there about 10 in the morning and was selling by 11. The fact you get your first few magazines for free made it easy to get straight into it, and it felt like they were setting you up quickly so you could get back on your feet as soon as possible.
I’ve got a great technique for selling, I listen to comedy shows when I’m on pitch so I’m always smiling and laughing when people come out of the shop and see me, and I think it increases my chances of getting a sale. The best bit for me is the customers. Even if they’re not buying the magazine, just having people come up and say hello or stand around for a chat I enjoy. I’ve got one fella who comes a couple of times a week with a coffee and two sausage rolls – one for me and one for my dog, Boycie. I’ve had a lady knit some jumpers and a blanket for Boycie and a snood for me. I’ve been given coats, sleeping bags, dog treats. One guy even bought two big bowls of chicken and rice over, one with sauce on it for me to eat and one without sauce for Boycie, which he demolished. So, I just want to say thank you to all those who have helped me out. I know not everyone can give right now because not everyone has the money, but some people just give me their time, and I really appreciate it. It might not seem like a lot to them, but it means a lot to me.
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I’ll have had Boycie for 16 years in February. He’s got some mileage on him – I got him in Scotland when he was three months old and we spent the first five or six years of his life up there, where he’d sit out in the snow through choice. He hates the rain, but he loves the snow. He loves a walk as well, so I make sure we go for three or four walks a day round Turnpike Lane or Lordship Lane, which is good for both of us. He is an attention seeker, though. When I’m on pitch he’s usually sleeping under his blanket, but if anyone stops to talk to me, he’ll pop his head out to say, “I’m here as well!” A lot of people stop to talk to him before they talk to me!
The Big Issue has helped me keep food in my belly and money in my pocket, and more importantly it means I don’t have to beg. I’m living in a friend’s van at the moment, so I’m just focusing on getting a place of my own (well, a place for me and Boycie), getting back into work, and keeping myself occupied. The Big Issue is helping me work towards that.
Interview: Lee Pillar
Morrisons Wood Green, London, UK