Big Issue seller on how lockdown pushed him closer to homelessness

Big Issue seller Simon Gravell, 51, who is using a card reader after discovering fewer people are using cash.

Big Issue seller Simon Gravell, 52, has been selling magazines in Norwich for the past eight years. - Credit: Sophie Wyllie

As part of a series, Daniel Moxon looks at how efforts to support the homeless in Norwich have fared during the pandemic.

Sometimes the thought of getting up early to go to work can be a daunting – but Simon Gravell is desperately waiting for the time when he's able to do it again.

The 52-year-old is a Big Issue vendor in Norwich. He has been based in the city after settling here around eight years ago, and has been homeless "on and off" for the last decade.

After building a loyal client base for years to secure regular income, Mr Gravell was able to regularly pay rent for a room in a house share and had been paying all his bills.

But then the Covid-19 pandemic came, lockdowns meant he couldn't sell – and now the prospect of returning to the streets is staring him in the face.

He said: "It's been an absolute nightmare. The year since last March has been so stop-start, and you end up paying back what you lost out on.

Simon Gravell has been a Big Issue vendor for around 10 years, eight of which spent in Norwich.

Simon Gravell has been a Big Issue vendor for around 10 years, eight of which spent in Norwich. - Credit: Simon Gravell

"The Big Issue is my sole income. I don't get any benefits or anything like that, it's all from my sales."

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Born in Germany – his father was in the British Army – Mr Gravell's family eventually settled in Nottingham and he ended up becoming a chef.

After a firm he worked for in Grimsby collapsed, he moved across to Fleetwood to take another job – but that company also went under.

All his possessions were in storage and he had already given up his home in Grimsby. He was living in his boss' holiday let in Fleetwood, so when the firm failed he had no money and nowhere to go.

He said: "I always travelled where the work was and never had a problem finding work. But after I got made redundant at Fleetwood money ran out and I ended up homeless – no-one wants to employ a chef who can't have a wash in the morning.

"I was just wandering around the country aimlessly. I ran out of money and I was living at the bottom of hedgerows.

Big Issue seller Simon Gravell. He has a hernia that needs operating on - but can't because he has no permanent address to...

Big Issue seller Simon Gravell, 52, has been selling magazines in Norwich for the past eight years. - Credit: Steve Adams

"I ended up in Norwich, and decided it was a really really nice place. I'd spent two years on the road and I chose to settle here. I seemed to take to the place – it just felt right."

Getting up in the morning for 12-hour days selling magazines on the street, six or seven days per week, has never daunted him.

"When you look at your gas meter and it says 26p, you don't need to psych yourself up that much," Mr Gravell said. "Even if you only bring a tenner home, it's still £10 for gas.

"If I sell four books, I've got a breakfast. Then the next four is dinner."

The money he has earned through selling for The Big Issue has been a "life-saver", but he and more than 1,300 other regular vendors around the country have once again been forced to stop selling during the current lockdown, meaning his income has completely dried up.

Through savings he had and help from close friends and family, he "just about" got through the first lockdown last year. The second, in November, was paid for through bumper sales at Christmas.

Evening News Original Simon Gravell selling the Big Issue in Norwich.Photo by Simon Finlay

Simon Gravell selling the Big Issue in Norwich. - Credit: Simon Finlay

But now Mr Gravell has no savings, and knows he is fortunate to even have a roof over his head – he is staying with his girlfriend, who he describes as his "saviour".

"Without her I would be up a creek without a paddle," he added.

There are still options for him. He doesn't want to use a foodbank but knows the option is there "if I really need", while people are still able to take out an online subscription to The Big Issue in his name.

"Big Issue also give us a £25 per week food voucher, so I can still eat. And they have a crisis fund where, if we have an emergency, we can ring our area manager and they can help sort something."

But more than anything, Mr Gravell simply wants to get back out on the street and start selling magazines again, so he can pay off debts and start building up savings once again so, one day, he'll no longer need that support.

The Big Issue's big issue

Big Issue vendors have been forced to stop selling magazines during lockdown, meaning their income has completely dried up.

Big Issue vendors have been forced to stop selling magazines during lockdown, meaning their income has completely dried up. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

After this current national lockdown was announced, The Big Issue launched its 100 Days of Action campaign.

The charity trader said 2020 had been "the toughest year we've ever had", adding: "Our work with vendors is more vital, and more challenging, than at any time in our history."

It had to ask its 1,300 vendors across the UK – there are 81 across Norfolk and Suffolk, most of whom are based in Norwich and Ipswich – to stop selling during lockdown with the rule being to stay at home.

A Big Issue spokesperson said: "You can support by making a one-off or regular donation, or by subscribing in print or digital – visit www.bigissue.com/support and show your support for vulnerable people at this incredibly challenging time.

"Readers can find also their local vendor on the Big Issue website via a mapping tool whereby they have the opportunity to purchase a subscription for a loved one or themselves, with 50pc going directly to the vendor to support them at a time of crisis."

More in this series

– How Norwich's homeless have been helped during coronavirus

– Norfolk's homeless encouraged to get vaccine despite no JCVI prioritisation

– Norwich homeless service fears 'tsunami' when Covid's economic toll hits

– At least five homeless people died in Norfolk in 2020

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