Data has shown that Taiwan’s poverty rate is 1.73%, ranking the lowest in the world. However, if you look closely at regulations, you can see that the Taiwanese government identifies people who have the ability to work but are currently out of the workforce as the “voluntarily unemployed”, which means they are denied social assistance and are not considered in the calculation of the national poverty rate. Among these people, most are homeless.
Statistics shows that 89% of the homeless used to have a job before they started to live on the street, but that most did labour-intensive and low paid work, employed as construction workers, cleaners, factory operators and kitchen hands. Even after being forced to quit their jobs and losing their homes in the wake of family misfortune, physical injury or disease, 71% continue to work casually. Their work includes scavenging recyclables to sell, handing out leaflets, holding advertising boards on the street, helping at temple festivals, and so on. Their average monthly income is NT $4280, which is the equivalent of only NT $143 per day to cover all living expenses.
To make matters worse, they need to put up with contemptuous looks from others, including city council members, who have suggested that street cleaners should hose homeless people with water or that the homeless should be dumped in the mountainous areas of Yangmingshan. Even using searchlights to prevent the homeless from sleeping has been recommended. However, these suggestions only drive the homeless away, and cannot mitigate the problems of a rising unemployment rate, increasing house prices and family breakdowns. The homeless, whose number grows every year, cannot escape bearing the brunt of many negative stereotypes.
Luckily, seeing the bitterness of street life, The Big Issue offers to help the homeless get back on their feet.
Not selling compassion, but fashionable magazines instead
Wearing orange vests and peddling magazines on the street, the homeless have finally caught the attention of passers-by this time. It turns out that what they are selling is not magnolia flowers, chewing gum, ball-point pens or rags. Instead, it is fashionable magazines that most people had once never heard of.
It is not rare for people with disadvantaged backgrounds to peddle on the street, but now there is a new choice of product: The Big Issue. The magazine is published by Fines Lee, who first went to Britain to obtain authorisation from The Big Issue before returning to Taiwan to rearrange the content and pass on the magazines to homeless peddlers.
Before this, Fines Lee was co-founder of Kimo, once the largest web portal in Taiwan, which was later acquired by Yahoo and merged into “Yahoo! Kimo”. It was not long before he had set up another website called roodo.com and hired 90 writers in Taiwan and abroad to share arts, culture and lifestyle stories. In 2009, he won the annual “Click! Awards” prize for this website.
In the same year, he became deeply intrigued by The Big Issue. He made six trial versions of magazine covers before going directly to The Big Issue’s headquarters in the UK. Following negotiations, he received the go-ahead, officially launching the Taiwanese version of The Big Issue within five months.
“Actually, it wasn’t that difficult to get authorisation, because everyone knows that the real test lies ahead, especially when you are selling magazines through a special channel like this,” said Fines Lee.
This “special channel” is homeless people. Originating from London, The Big Issue was founded in 1991 by John Bird, who once lived on the streets, and Gordon Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop. The magazine was created for the homeless, the unemployed, the bankrupt or those on the verge of bankruptcy to peddle to make a living. Today, it has spread to more than ten countries.
To help the magazine put down its roots in Taiwan, Fines Lee did not want to directly translate the English version. Instead, he recruited more than 30 writers from Taiwan and other countries to write in Chinese about arts, culture, design, technology, fashion and business. With its minimalist and elegant cover design, the magazine targets urban commuters aged between 20 to 35. Except for the fact that it is published only once a month, almost all other aspects of the Taiwanese version of The Big Issue are consistent with the original version.
Overturning mainstream business rules to create a street-selling miracle
There is no difference in how the British headquarters and Taiwanese counterpart assist the homeless. The Big Issue first trains homeless people, asking them to sign an agreement of conduct. Later, it provides them with a vest and ten magazine copies, before they begin a trial selling the magazine outside a specific public transport station. All of this income goes straight into the pockets of the homeless peddlers.
If they are still willing to sell magazines after the trial, they will need to buy copies at NT $50 each and resell them to customers at NT $100. If they do not sell out of the previous issue, they can exchange remaining copies for the newer version. If they want to quit at any time, the company will buy back all unsold copies.
The latest issue of the magazine can only be bought on the streets. Normally, 90% of copies of the latest issue are sold on the street, with the remaining 10% of copies later being sold online or via other channels. This method, which seems to run counter to mainstream business rules, has been adopted in order to create benefit for the homeless.
Even though the goal of The Big Issue is to support the disadvantaged, it does not reduce the number of pages or compromise at all on content or quality. It hopes that readers buy a copy of The Big Issue on the street because they are interested in the content, not simply motivated by a sense of pity or compassion. The close connections created through face-to-face interactions between homeless peddlers and readers have been beyond anyone’s expectations.
One example of a homeless peddler is Brother Lu, who suffers from polio. After many unsuccessful attempts at finding a job, he became a street seller, going to an MRT station every day at 6am and only leaving at 6pm. He earns an average monthly income of about NT $10,000 and receives much good will from his customers. “When frequent customers haven’t seen me for a while, they always tell me they have been worried about my health when we bump into each other again,” said Lu.
Striking a balance between public welfare and business, The Big Issue only needed six months to break even and reach 30,000 copies being sold per month. Today, it has gathered more than 70 street sellers and expanded its selling points to central and southern Taiwan. In the future, The Big Issue will follow the British example and turn its magazines into a weekly publication, continuing to enable a brighter future for more homeless people.
Fines Lee believes that “a hand up not a hand out” is the best way to help people escape poverty.