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7 January 2020updated 24 Jul 2021 4:02am

Crumbling Britain: Big Issue competitors arrive as rough sleeping rises

Grassroots responses to homelessness, like the radical alternative DOPE magazine, expose the scale of the crisis.

By Anoosh Chakelian

It’s evening rush hour on the London Underground when a crammed District Line train approaches Whitechapel tube station in east London. A woman who looks to be no older than early twenties, with big eyes and a bigger rucksack, squeezes through the crowd, offering passengers a copy of a magazine.

“Have a read, guys, it’s awesome – I read it myself,” she says. Living in a homeless shelter nearby, she goes by the nickname of Pixie and sells these magazines to get by. I buy a copy, and she gives me a wide smile and a fist bump. “Sorry, my hands are grimy,” she apologises, before stepping off onto the platform.

If this sounds a little too enthusiastic for a Big Issue seller, that’s because it wasn’t the Big Issue she was selling. It was a copy of a new publication, a quarterly newspaper called DOPE Magazine, produced by an anarchist publisher called Dog Section Press in London since spring 2018, and now being sold by homeless people in cities around the country, from Bristol to Edinburgh.

Stylishly designed with edgy cover illustrations, its contributors include the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, musicians Sleaford Mods and Drillminister, and artists Laura Grace Ford, Cat Sims and Liv Wynter. It already has a circulation of over 5,000.

Eclectic and left-leaning, its editorial choices are very different from those of the Big Issue, and its set-up is too. DOPE is £3 for punters, but bundles of £60 worth of magazines are distributed for free to homeless people, “as well as anyone else who could use a little solidarity”, to sell.

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Whereas Big Issue sellers must buy their magazines and sell them on, homeless people and anyone else living precariously or on a low income can simply pick up copies of DOPE for free from bookshops and shelters that stock them, and sell them at their cover price.

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The small anarchist publisher behind the scheme, Dog Section Press, estimates that this puts £3 in the pocket of a vendor for every pound spent on producing it.

There is no commitment, and no background checks – people with no recourse to public funds, like asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, can also make money selling them, and batches are sent for free to prisoners to read.

Instead of ID cards, badges or a uniform, DOPE sellers are given transparent plastic bags that say “official vendor” on the front and cite the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of 1982 on the back – the law which states that you can sell newspapers in public without a licence or permit.

Where the Big Issue goes by the mottos “working, not begging” and “a hand up not a hand out”, DOPE’s ethos is closer to “solidarity, not charity”.

Pixie invited me to visit her at the shelter later that week, enthusiastic about discussing the new scheme, but I’ve failed to find her there or make further contact. Another vendor I’ve been in touch with, whose name I won’t disclose as he’s currently in and out of court, reports “so much good feedback and personal compliments about how I pitch myself” when selling DOPE around north London. He says he feels “so grateful for this opportunity”.

A fellow seller says “I live with this, I eat with this” while holding an issue of the magazine, and another delights in the irony of selling copies of the anti-capitalist publication outside the Bank of England to city types, at one point making £100 in one day.

“We need help distributing it, and the vendors need some money in their pocket,” says Craig Clark, 36, one of a collective behind DOPE (naturally, the anarchists try to avoid titles or a hierarchy). “It’s a relatively easy way for people who might not be able to access the labour market in traditional ways to raise some cash.”

We meet in their office in the top floor of the Freedom Press publishing house and bookshop. Hidden down an alley behind Whitechapel station, squeezed between KFC and a nail bar, it’s a historic, sandy-bricked industrial building with sash windows painted red and covered in anarchist bumper stickers (“DON’T VOTE: It’ll only encourage them!”).

Thought to be the English-speaking world’s oldest anarchist publisher, it also houses a squatters’ advice service and a distributor of books to prisoners. Its narrow staircase, paint-flecked floorboards and mural-painted walls provide a rather cosily radical setting. Clark, in black board shorts, trucker cap and a T-shirt condemning drone warfare, with his hands covered in tattoos, fits into this polite anarchist environment. Softly spoken and quietly confident, he makes me a cup of tea as he jokingly introduces me to “London’s premier anarchist bookshop”.

Despite providing a radical alternative to the Big Issue, DOPE’s creators want to avoid being too niche or ideological.

“We didn’t want it to be called ‘Flag’ or ‘The Red Star’ or something overtly left or punky or whatever,” says Clark. “It’s intended to be a bit oblique so there are no preconceptions, and I guess it [‘dope’] is a slightly stupid hipster word but then it’s a bit deeper than that. It can be whatever it is!”

DOPE is now distributed at numerous points across the country, including radical book stores, cinemas and art spaces in Edinburgh, Bristol, Southampton, Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester.

Part of its appeal to distributors is its flexibility, says Mairi Oliver, owner of the Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh, which has been stocking DOPE for over a year.

“Unlike a lot of the other things [out there for homeless people], you need nothing,” she tells me over the phone from the shop. “You don’t need to prove anything, you can just show up and say ‘I want some DOPE magazines’ and someone will give you a bundle. The idea is that wherever they’re hanging out – and eventually they’ll be in soup kitchens in the city – you can grab a batch and sell them as and when you want.”

Although Oliver says the Big Issue is “brilliant”, she points out that “wherever there is one rule, there is one barrier to one person”, whereas these newer projects are more accessible.

“A lot of the [homeless] guys we know would never do the Big Issue, but are like ‘oh, this might be something I would feel comfortable with’… The other big appeal is that it’s beautifully produced with great articles; something that the guys we know on the street would read. There’s nothing do-goody about it, where the fact that it’s well-meaning is enough. It’s a really well-produced journal so people can be proud of selling it.”

DOPE is not the only new publication in the Big Issue space. A non-profit underground magazine called Nervemeter started up in 2011 under the coalition government, for “people who may have found that their benefits have been cut: they are skint, they may be sick, they desperately need to make some cash”, according to the introduction of its first issue.

Still running, this differs slightly in that vendors ask for donations from recipients for the magazine, with a suggestion of £3 minimum. Yet part of its appeal is also as a Big Issue alternative. “Nervemeter is not a registered charity,” reads its website. “We don’t trust registered charities and you shouldn’t either. We are a charitable organisation and are 100 per cent transparent, which means every penny you give us goes on printing and nothing else.”

There have always been grassroots responses to homelessness, but trends like this reflect its scale in the country. The latest count for the whole of England, in January last year, showed a 165 per cent increase in rough sleeping overall since 2010.

“It’s impossible to hide the crisis in homelessness – it’s everywhere, it’s so visible, and I think that means people are getting it a bit more,” observes Oliver. She used to host a charity called Streetreads in her bookshop’s basement, which started up in 2017 distributing donated books to rough sleepers in Edinburgh. It is now a 24-hour library in a new, bigger space.

Passersby are more likely to stop and speak to a homeless person who has a book, and tend to give more generously to someone reading over someone who isn’t, according to Oliver’s feedback. “There’s a hugely humanising element – ‘I read, you read, what are you reading? Here’s something I can connect with and talk to you about when I know nothing about your lived experience’,” she says.

Similarly, selling a paper is a way of engaging the public, and can also shield those in need of raising cash informally. “Begging is illegal but selling a newspaper is not,” Clark says. “If you’re sitting there with a newspaper then you’re covered, there’s another bit of protection.”

With years of austerity contributing to the UK’s homelessness crisis, councils, community groups, charities and individuals have been coming up with different schemes to try and fill the gaps in the state’s ever fraying safety net. Opening up the market for magazines distributed via homeless networks is just one example.

Austerity has restricted not just public funding but also money flowing into community infrastructure through grants and other types of government support. This makes it even harder for people to carry through innovative projects on the ground.

“There is huge energy in innovation and creativity from very, very grassroots and often unexpected corners, in response to the structural problems of the economy,” observes director of programmes and practice at the New Economics Foundation think tank, Rachel Laurence, who started out doing community development work in Manchester in the early 2000s.

“[But] over the past ten, 15 years, communities have been put in a more difficult position than they were before, in terms of being able to be creative, being able to come up with things like this.”

It has become a cliché to declare print publishing a dying industry. Yet when it begins thriving on Britain’s streets in this way, it’s a sign of a far deeper social struggle.

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