NEWSMAKER: The big idea - Annie Turner, Chief executive, The Big Issue Foundation

Lucy Maggs

After 20 years of working in the homelessness arena, Annie Turner describes herself as a "homelessness hack"."What's kept me in the sector, is the people," she says. "The great characters and the resilience of the people you are working with."

Her role of chief executive at the Big Issue Foundation allows her plenty of contact with homeless people. Her office, up the rickety stairs of a Grade II listed building, is next door to The Big Issue magazine outlet, where vendors are constantly coming and going picking up their copies.

"There is a real sense of spirit, someone coming to the Big Issue has made a decision they want to do something. There is an optimistic feeling," she says.

The organisation's location on Wandsworth Road in Vauxhall, London, is popular with charities. Centrepoint and a number of other charities are down the road, which she says is useful, as they are tolerant neighbours and used to a whole host of different people coming in and out of their offices.

Turner's interest in the problems that lead to homelessness was kindled about 30 years ago when she worked in a children's home. "Many kids were in the last stages of being looked after and their greatest desire was to go off and get a local authority flat," she says. "I could see impending disaster for many as they were so ill-prepared to look after themselves."

From there she moved on to do some night shifts in a women's shelter called the Theatre Girls' Club in Soho, London, while saving for a trip to America.

The shelter was set up in the 19th century by a vicar to look after girls who came to London to be on the stage. She was struck by the personalities of some of the women who ended up in this really "pretty awful" place.

"It was fantastic for me as a 20 year old to be among women with such vast experience," she says.

"I was particularly struck by one woman, Phyllis, who was quite elderly and drank a lot. She would sit in a chair and sometimes you'd have to wash her down as she would literally just sit in the chair. She was brought up in colonial India and had been an alcoholic since the age of 19. She came to England and years later there she was."

Turner's enthusiasm about people aligns her with the Big Issue's philosophy of giving people a hand up rather than a hand out. "Vendors tend to come to us thinking they can't do anything and they discover they can actually be useful members of society."

The Big Issue Foundation and the Big Issue company work closely together as well as being in close proximity. As one of the best-known social enterprises in the world, the Big Issue has no problem with the idea of a charity working alongside a business. "More charities are starting to operate in this way," she says. "The Big Issue is a movement, we don't feel separate from the company."

All profits from the magazine go to the foundation, which delivers support services to vendors. The foundation carries out a needs assessment on all vendors and comes up with action plans to help get them off the streets and back into mainstream society.

The organisation does offer some creative workshops such as art and drama groups, gives advice on housing, drug and alcohol issues and offers employment and training schemes. A number of The Big Issue vendors go on every year to take up permanent employment. But Turner says: "We have started to go down the route of sign posting. Rather than trying to be all things to all people, we send people to the right services. Working in partnership with other organisations is important."

Turner is a keen supporter of the anticipated Charities Bill which could transform the law restricting the trading activity of charities. The new Bill would enable charities to generate income through trading without having to have a separate enterprise. The Big Issue was initially set up in 1991 as a company and the charity was set up four years later to raise funds from trusts and take advantage of the tax breaks available to charities.

"The separate company and charity is something of a false construct.

We should be able to operate as a social business but many funders won't give money to a non-charity. We want to be closer to the business," she says. But at the same time she feels that the foundation would benefit from raising its own profile, away from the magazine. She feels there is space for other, complementary services, such as projects for women.

The magazine is sold predominantly by men with an average age of 35.

"Women don't want to stand on the street selling something because of the harassment they get," she says. "But the magazine does not have to be the only approach to social business we have. I feel the foundation needs to develop more ideas."

She feels that the Big Issue really delivers when it comes to boosting people's confidence and enabling them to find a job or a home. "For years the homelessness sector had been saying we must do something about encouraging people to get work. But the Big Issue really delivered. It's a good magazine, not just a pity read."

Turner is determined that in the next few years the foundation will really make an impact.

"We want to make a difference to people's lives," she says.


Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus