Big Issue’s subscription scheme celebrates five years helping homeless women in Australia

Today marks five years since The Big Issue Australia launched its Women’s Subscription Enterprise (WSE), an innovative programme to help women get off the streets and back into housing and employment.

According to the street paper half of the estimated 105,000 people who are homeless in Australia at any given time are women.

WSE employee Cheryl at work.Rachael was once one of them. After she was forced to leave her home, Rachael would stay in clubs open until 4am around Bondi Beach in Sydney because she was too afraid to be outside, alone at night.

“I was with someone who was very controlling who always told me ‘you can’t do it’. The more people put me down the less confidence I had to try,” she said.

“I left and that’s how I ended up in the shelter. I met a girl there who was a vendor and then I found out about WSE.”

While selling street papers provides an income to thousands of homeless people around the world each year, the job isn’t suited to everyone. Research by The Big Issue found that selling magazines on the street was not a viable option for many women, particularly those escaping domestic violence or caring for young children.

“The Women’s Subscription Enterprise offers me a safe and more regular income than selling on the streets” – WSE employee Cheryl.

To address this concern, The Big Issue established the WSE in 2010 to provide safe and meaningful employment to marginalised and disadvantaged women as dispatch assistants. Working four-hour shifts in women-only teams, WSE employees sort and pack subscription copies of The Big Issue to be sent out to readers.

After two years working with the project, Rachael now has her own place. She continues to work at WSE once every fortnight.

“I’ve built up so much confidence in the last two years, which is why WSE is so good,” she added.

“I know I’m going to work for this many hours for this much money – this is what I’ve got to work with. I found myself my own place… with electricity included!”

So far, The Big Issue has employed more than 120 women in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide through the WSE. Every 100 subscriptions sold gives employment to one woman for one year.

The WSE also operates a call centre which lets employees contact Big Issue subscribers directly to thank them for their support and encourage subscription renewals.

Lisa Wilkinson (L) and WSE employee Rachael (R) at The Big Shift.Last week The Big Shift returned for a third year to celebrate the success of the programme and raise awareness.

Coinciding with Anti-Poverty Week, the event on 12 October saw more than 150 guests roll up their sleeves and pack magazines alongside the WSE employees. They heard first-hand about how the enterprise has changed lives.

“The opportunity to interact and engage with employees is a significant part of what makes the event a success,” said Simone Flanagan, Media and Communications Co-ordinator at The Big Issue.

“The feedback from the WSE employees who worked at The Big Shift has been wholeheartedly positive. Many enjoyed the social interaction and being recognised as experts at what they do.”

Employees say the programme offers a safe environment where they can learn new skills and become empowered to change their own circumstances.

“The Women’s Subscription Enterprise offers me a safe and more regular income than selling on the streets. But it’s also about the friendships within the group,” said Cheryl who has overcome homelessness and drug addiction thanks to her involvement with WSE.

“I think that if I didn’t have The Big Issue I would still be on the streets, I’d still be using,” she added. “The Big issue is pretty much my life and that’s all I want to do.”