Every morning, on my way to work, I walk past the same Big Issue vendor. I'm sure you do too.
Although you may not realise it.
Often, in our haste, with our heads buried in our phones or free daily newspaper, and our minds on the day ahead, we tend to neglect those around us.
Other people become invisible. We acknowledge them only when we must - often to ask for something, even more often to tut when they get in our way.
Of all the people that become invisible, the most invisible are the homeless.
This is part of a larger problem. Whilst the physical person might become invisible to us because we are busy, the invisibility of their plight says much more than that. Homelessness does not shock or appal us; it has very much become an expected state of affairs. A fact of life. I would argue that that is the reason that the homeless have become invisible.
Like many, I walked past my local vendor multiple times before becoming conscious of his presence. He merged into the sea of newspaper vendors and Jehovah witnesses as I exited the station. Until one day, I stopped. I stopped and spoke to him, and we didn't stop speaking for a fair amount of time. I learnt his name, his hopes for the day, the things that mattered to him. He learnt that someone cared to know these things.
From that point on, he was no longer invisible.
One day, during our regular morning chats, he handed me a leaflet: The Big London Night Walk, it said.
Fast-forward a couple of months and I found myself, together with 300 others, about to commence on a 12-mile walk around London. Although the purpose of the event, organised by The Big Issue Foundation, was primarily to fundraise, it also had the aim of showing participants an alternative side to the city. The idea being that whilst people followed the route around the familiar streets of London, a journey that can take up to 7 hours, they also got the opportunity to listen to the stories of homelessness from the current and former Big Issue vendors who walked alongside them. Stories of homelessness that they wouldn't usually take the time hear.
"We do it at night because the sad reality is that many people who are new to the streets, actually don't sleep on the streets at night, they sleep during the day and walk at night," the Foundation's CEO Stephen Robertson explained.
I was enlightened to the poignant reason for this nocturnal wandering by fellow walker, and Big Issue vendor Viv,
"We don't sleep on the pavement at night because we are worried about getting attacked. People will spit on you; they will kick you as they go past. Some people I knew had a bucket of water thrown over them one night, another night someone tried to lie on them and use them as a mattress, and another night somebody tried to pour lighter fuel on them and set them alight."
And her story was not unique.
''The amount of times I've been woken up at 5.30am, shaken about by the police, had my sleeping bag dragged off of me, been threatened with arrest," her colleague Jessica shared.
As well as enlightening people to these harsh realities, The Big Issue Foundation aims to use the money raised on the night to tackle them. "All of the money raised will help us extend our work onto the streets. So we will be employing new people who will be able to help more and more Big Issue vendors get connected and away from the things that are keeping them trapped in homelessness," Stephen explained to me, "and we have a huge number of success stories."
One notable success story who I meet on the night was James, a former vendor who used his experiences of homelessness to write a series of internationally bestselling books about himself and his cat Bob. The books are now available in more than 30 languages, with over 1 million copies sold in the UK alone.
But success, Stephen explains, can be found not only by gaining celebrity, but in the very act of becoming a vendor in the first place:
"The thing for me that is the most important are the things that happen at the beginning. Getting a Big Issue vendor out and working, connecting with the public and earning cash in their pocket, rather than begging, committing crime, or any other way that one might get money. So yes, we have some really great stories, but it is those first stages when you're trying to start your business on the streets that are absolutely vital as they are by far the toughest."
Overall, the night helped me to challenge any preconceptions I had about homelessness and, through the experiences shared with me, I learnt that it truly is something that can, and does, happen to anyone and is therefore something that we should all be concerned about.
After all, as vendor Bill explained to me:
"There's a saying: 'everybody is only about 2 paydays away from being homeless.' Basically what that means is, if you lost your job tomorrow, and didn't get paid for the next two paydays, the chances are you'd become homeless because you wouldn't have the money to continue paying your mortgage, or your rent or other expenses"
So next time you walk past your local Big Issue vendor, stop and say hello. I guarantee it will change your outlook on life.
The CEO of The Big Issue Foundation, Stephen Robertson, and myself on the night.
I will be making a feature on The Big London Night Walk as part of the regular London360 show, you can also check out some of the highlights from the night here: https://youtu.be/10T5z9tYObM