By Christian Lisseman and Nicole Cunliffe – Big Issue North
Regular customers of Nourish in Sheffield, England might do a double take when served by staff member Gary Williams. Until a month ago they were more likely to see him right outside the ‘healthy fast-food restaurant’ on his regular pitch, selling Big Issue North.
Williams, a vendor since 2012, moved on from selling the magazine outside the restaurant to serving customers inside in September 2015, when owners Ben and Richard Pryor, and Dave Stache offered him a full-time job.
“I was a forklift handler in Barnsley,” Williams, 45, explains. “I lost my job when the financial crisis hit. At the time I was renting a flat and my landlord wouldn’t take housing benefit so I found myself on the street.”
Homeless and without an income, he started selling Big Issue North to feed himself. He worked in Leeds city centre and then moved to the Sheffield pitch outside Nourish, where he soon made an impression on the owners.
“We met Gary in November 2013 when he started selling Big Issue North outside,” says Stache. “We were polite with him and he was polite with us. You could say we just clicked. Getting to this point has been an organic development. Gary wouldn’t take anything for free. He always wanted to help us in return. He is a genuinely nice bloke.”
“Dave used to feed me, give me free drinks,” says Williams. “In return I did the odd job for them, emptied the bins, cleared the tables. Then they offered me a full-time job. I now work on the tills and clean up, and when Nourish starts using a van to bring their food direct to the customers, I will start working on the van too.”
Nourish opened its doors on Sheffield’s Pinstone Street in 2013, just before Williams started selling there. Marketing itself as a fast-food restaurant with a difference, it serves nutritional meals using ingredients from local producers. Its ethical stance may be backed up by the owners’ support for Williams, but Stache is keen to point out that the job offer was a business decision.
“We employed Gary because he is the right person for our business. That’s what’s important. If he has a history in homelessness – so what?”
“We became friends and it felt like giving Gary a job was meant to happen,” says Stache. “Gary is a caring, genuine bloke and is very ‘Nourish’. We didn’t set out to employ a homeless person. We employed Gary because he is the right person for our business. That’s what’s important. If he has a history in homelessness – so what?”
Williams is one of a number of people who have successfully moved on from selling a street paper. The musician Jim Jones recently wrote a blog post on the Big Issue North website about how selling The Big Issue UK had helped him through some difficult times.
“It became a lifeline and stabilised my situation,” he wrote. “I could become independent from the other flaky drug addicts and that whole dismal scene. Just that alone made enough of a difference for me to figure out how to move on.”
The transition from selling the magazine to more mainstream employment isn’t always easy and isn’t something that works for every vendor. Some vendors see selling the magazine as the only job they ever want to do, while others see it as a stepping stone to something else.
“There’s no limit on how long someone can sell the magazine for – it’s a different journey for everyone,” explains Big Issue North’s assistant director Emma Eaton. “It’s fantastic whenever someone moves on from selling the magazine into other employment. Gary is a great example of how that can happen.”
Another former Big Issue North vendor, Nicolaus Tanase, 23, now works in a biscuit factory in Manchester. Tanase arrived in the UK in 2007 when he, together with his family, relocated from the Romanian city of Constanta. In 2010 he started selling Big Issue North to make an income and contribute to the household.
“When we first came over to the UK I was 15, but I never managed to enrol in a school,” he says. “By the time we had settled properly in Manchester I was 16 and needed to do my bit.”
When Tanase first arrived in the UK, selling Big Issue North was one of the few ways Romanians were able to earn income, due to the working restrictions placed on them by the government of the time. In 2014, these restrictions came to an end, and Tanase was able to seek alternative employment.
“I started to look for work in January 2014, as soon as we were allowed to work legally in the UK. I tried anything – gave my CV to various supermarkets and looked online. In February this year I started working at a biscuit factory in Manchester through an agency. My work includes packing and quality control of the biscuits.”
He credits his time as a Big Issue North vendor with helping him to get into work. “I learnt to speak English properly. I also learned to show respect. You need to be good at both to be able to sell the magazine.”
“I learnt to speak English properly. I also learned to show respect. You need to be good at both to be able to sell the magazine.”
He looks back fondly on his time as a vendor. “I met some really lovely people when I sold the magazine in Normanton – really lovely people. I still miss them. Maybe I will go there just to see how people are. I would like to thank them all for the support they gave me.”
Tanase, who now lives with his partner of four years and their two daughters, is happy to work at the biscuit factory but he’s hoping to find more permanent work in the future.
“I am on a six-hour contract. And sometimes I am not given any work at all. But I’m happy because this job means I can provide for my family. I really like working on cars and a job in that field would be amazing. I hope to get a full-time job with a proper contract. I’d like to be able to afford to buy a house for me and my family.”
Back in Sheffield, getting a new job is not the only thing that’s gone right for Nourish employee Williams. “I also got my own flat two months ago. I feel like I can finally get on with my life.”
Thinking about what advice he can give to Big Issue North vendors who have yet to move on, he has this to say: “Work hard. Always do the best you can, because you never know what may come out of it. Things can always get better.”