Jill Segger talks to Kate, a former addict, who
once faced the choice between crime, begging
and selling The Big Issue Kate (not her real name) is a sparky and engaging young woman. She could be anyone's daughter or sister and on the streets of a university city thronged with young people, there is nothing in her appearance or demeanour to mark her out from her contemporaries. And that is the whole point — what happened to Kate in her childhood and adolescence was not the result of some personal abnormality or unique inadequacy. Her story serves as a reminder that a comfortable and secure start to life is an unearned blessing and not a
reward for virtue.
Kate's father, whom she believes to have been suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness, was violent and abusive towards both Kate and her mother. Brought up in an atmosphere of fear and conflict, Kate became, in her own words, "a bit weird". She concealed her pain by developing a larger than life persona: "I was always loud and trying to be funny." No one who might have been expected to have some responsibility for her saw through the unpleasing carapace to the damaged and frightened child within; the adult world soon began to take her at her face value and she found it difficult to make friends amongst her peers. By the age of 13, Kate had started to drink and as she progressed through her ems, she became part df the "rave" scene and began to take ecstasy. This effort to find temporary relief from her misery took over her life. She gave no thought to her schoolwork or future prospects: "Nothing existed for me except partying." She failed her GCSEs and although she achieved two passes on sitting re-takes, the disorder of her life overwhelmed her and she dropped out of education. Employment as a trainee chef was short-lived. The break-up of a relationship plunged her deeper into confusion and she lost her job. It was at this point of crisis that Kate began to use heroin. The spiral into addiction which followed severed what tenuous links to a normal life she had hitherto managed to retain. Addiction cannot be financed on unemployment benefit and Kate began stealing to feed her habit. All her relationships, including that with her mother, broke down — "no one could trust me"— and it was not long before this deeply unhappy and vulnerable girl became homeless.
For two years Kate lived rough. She slept in car parks and shop doorways. Sometimes she found a bed on the floor of an acquaintance's room or in a hostel. She described the atmosphere in which she existed at this time as one of constant suspicion and fear. This was made worse by the failures of perception and the numbing of normal warning responses which are among the side effects of heroin addiction.
On more than one occasion she was the victim of violence and theft and she learned that the people amongst whom she moved were "associates, not friends. I was on my own". Her attempts to wean herself off heroin failed and her depression deepened. It is a tribute to her determination that in the depths of this depression, Kate entered a local outpatients detoxification programme. With the help of a doctor, a community psychiatric nurse and regular contact support, she managed to come off heroin and has remained "clean" for over a year.
Last year, Kate began to feel a change in herself, and with it, a desire to attempt the re-building of her damaged life. Still struggling with the pain of fighting her addiction, she decided that she had three choices: "crime, begging or selling The Big Issue". Crime
was not an option if she was to avoid falling back into the chaotic existence from which she was striving to escape and, with touching delicacy, she explained her rejection of begging: "I couldn't do that in the town where my Mum still lives." It was in becoming a Big Issue vendor that Kate took her first steps towards reentering what most of us would term a normal existence.
The Big Issue Foundation offers structure, support and a path into reclaiming self-esteem for people whose lives have disintegrated. Some vendors may just have come out of prison; others may be fighting an addiction to drugs or alcohol. All of them are trying to get their lives back on track. The system worksTo keep the vendor stable and in providing the opportunity to earn some money for clothes and food, assists in the rediscovery of responsibility and selfrespect. Because all who work in administration for The Big Issue have been vendors themselves, they know that is essential to enter into partnership with those who come to them and to operate a system which is flexible enough to accommodate men and women whose lives have not equipped them for the punctilious observation of a 9 to 5 regime. Compromise and understanding are the guiding principles of their enterprise, although they police the behaviour of their vendors with a shrewd eye for good relations with the public. Abusive or aggressive vendors are counselled, disciplined and placed under the ultimate sanction of losing their authorization to sell the magazine. It is to this role of support, oversight and management that Kate has now been appointed and for which she is profoundly grateful. She describes the transformation in her life: "You wouldn't have recognized me. I had matted hair and old, ripped clothes. I was dirty; I was hungry; I was ill. Thank God The Big Issue was there to keep me out of jail."
Kate's ambitions are to enter further education and to travel. She wonders about her chances of becoming a writer — "I want to communicate". Her future, and that of so many others like her, depends to a great extent on the responses of those of us to whom life has been kinder. The vendor you see on the corner of the street will be there for long hours in all weathers. He may return to a shop doorway to sleep that night; he will probably be hungry and tired; he will certainly be longing to