Sales are slow, but it supports my studies

March 10, 2000

All Big Issue sellers aren't 'down and out'. Alan Thomson reports on how universities are enrolling the homeless on degree courses

Big Issue seller Alton Williams is tired, hungry and cold. Sales are slow but he needs the extra cash. Then again, what university student doesn't?

Few could know that this "down and out", one of life's "failures", is at university doing a BSc in computer science.

But it was a close-run thing for Williams. As a child at a special needs school, little was expected of him. "If I had said I was going to university people would have laughed at me," he says.

Incorrectly branded educationally subnormal just because he had a speech impairment and some physical ailments, Williams ended up in special school, which he left with no qualifications. Later, at college, he was at odds with classmates who attached a stigma to those with special educational needs.

"I did well at special school but then had to deal with people in the mainstream. I don't think the other students could understand me, or even wanted to," he says.

It proved too much and Williams dropped out. His confidence deserted him, and his mid-20s were spent unemployed, sleeping rough and in dodgy bedsits. He had lost his way.

In his early 30s he started selling The Big Issue. Regular customers would stop and chat, finding out a bit about his life. Slowly Williams regained some of his confidence.

"I just couldn't see any way forward. But I met students and they talked about college. My customers were really supportive. I started to get my life back together when I began selling The Big Issue."

Williams, now 36, enrolled on an access course at Tower Hamlets College. Not only was he juggling study with his Big Issue commitment but he also lived out of one room in a shared house. He stuck at it.

"I was really scared at the beginning. I was too shy to explain my situation but, when I did, the Tower Hamlets lecturers were very supportive," he says.

He passed the course and last September started his BSc at Kingston University. The first semester has gone well.

"I'm not really the same person I was ten years ago. I want to take control of my life. That was one of the reasons I decided to go into education. I am proving I can do something with myself, and a degree is a passport to better things," he says.

Williams has taken out a student loan and faces debts of up to Pounds 13,000 on graduation. But it is a measure of his determination to change his once-grim life that the prospect of debt is not a deterrent.

"I don't care," he says. "After all, the Student Loans Company hasn't got heavies who are going to come round and break your legs if you can't pay."

* EDUCATION FIRST FOR ROUGH SLEEPERS

Education and training are key components of the government's Pounds 200 million Rough Sleepers initiative to prevent vulnerable people becoming homeless.

The Rough Sleepers Unit also helps people who are already homeless to leave the streets, kick any addictions and then return to a more stable life.

Three-quarters ofall rough sleepers, as opposed to the homeless in general, are over 25; the same proportion are living on the streets of London.

Many lack even basic educational qualifications, and more than half will have alcohol and/ or drug problems. So the road to a stable, independent life is steep.

From April, teams of outreach workers will hit the streets to make a first contact with people. Teams will include specialists in mental illness and drug and alcohol problems.

The next step will be to provide people with options that will lead to a life off the streets.

Finding a job is the main objective. But because so many rough sleepers lack qualifications, education must come first.

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