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A Wonderful Job And A Wonderful Opportunity For Homeless Women

07 March 2011

I have a wonderful job. It's not glamorous, or high profile, nor does it pay a particularly high salary. I work very long hours, often at weekends and regularly meet impossible deadlines. My office is truly terrible and the server crashes daily. BUT, every day I am reminded - in a very real way - of why I work as hard as I do....

There is a woman who comes in to visit me and the team a couple of times a week. For the purposes of this story, let's call her Donna.

Donna used to sell The Big Issue. I don't know the exact details of her background, but I know she's had a pretty tough life by most people's standards. I know she has a history of serious sexual and emotional abuse, has been homeless for extended periods over the years and battles daily with a complex range of mental health issues. Although Donna has probably had the toughest life of anyone I know, she has a beautiful, almost childlike, optimism about her. She hasn't sold The Big Issue in quite a while, but she is a regular fixture in our team and to be honest, I just adore her and her visits are a wonderful addition to my working week.

I started at The Big Issue around the same time we realised we weren't supporting very many women. While the Street Magazine Enterprise had been experiencing huge growth and incredible outcomes for vendors around the country for over 10 years - it was primarily helping men, with only 15% female vendors. Around this time I also learned that there are an astonishing 46,000 homeless women in Australia every night, a figure I found truly shocking (as I'm sure you do now). The traditional image of homelessness for many Australians is a middle-aged man with a bottle of spirits on a park bench, but in fact around half of the people who find themselves homeless in Australia every night are women. Many have faced horrendous histories of abuse and neglect. And many have children. I don't know about you, but the thought of 46,000 women and children not having a home to go to every night leaves me feeling quite ill...

I learned more and more about women's homelessness, and soon realised why selling The Big Issue on the streets was such an unsuitable option for women. The largest single cause of homelessness for women is domestic violence. Many have suffered a long history of abuse, and many are mums. Therefore selling on a street corner is just not a safe, appropriate or attractive work option for these very vulnerable women.

Once we became aware of the 'gap' in our service delivery, it naturally became incumbent upon us to find a solution. For those that know a little about homelessness, you will know that it is a complex issue to which there is no one simple solution. However, what we have become very good at at The Big Issue, is providing opportunities for marginalised or disadvantaged people to access work, earn an income and be reconnected with society. And that's how the Women's Subscription Enterprise was born.

After conducting a feasibility study in 2008, which reviewed what work opportunities best met the needs of homeless women, an extraordinary team of talented people have spent the past two years pulling together a sustainable business model that will provide work opportunities for disadvantaged women around the country. In March 2010 we were successful in our application to the Australian Government to acquire $1.2million in seed funding to make it happen and after years of hard work (and a fair measure of blood, sweat and tears) this week we have finally launched The Women's Subscription Enterprise.

And now the real challenge begins!

In the next year we will: open 3 distribution centres in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, employ 90 homeless women, and sell 9,000 subscriptions.

And the last one is definitely the most challenging. 9,000 probably doesn't sound like a lot to those of you who no doubt work with much bigger numbers and budgets than I do, but to me, in The Big Issue world - it's HUGE!

Of course, we have a small marketing budget (out of the $1.2million I mentioned earlier) that I will use for Direct Marketing and to pay staff, but certainly not the same as a traditional campaign would roll out in the commercial world.

We are asking business around the country to throw their support behind this initiative and join us on our incredible journey. By purchasing a subscription to The Big Issue magazine, for just $155 per year, they will get a quality publication delivered every fortnight, and the knowledge that they are giving Australia's most disadvantaged and vulnerable women hope for a brighter future.

Homeless women will work in supported distribution centres to prepare the magazines for distribution each fortnight, and be provided with training and support to turn their lives around. For every 100 subscriptions sold one disadvantaged woman can be employed.

It has been an incredibly challenging, complex and at times extremely frustrating journey so far and there is still a very, very long way to go for us to reach our ambitious goals.... My office hasn't improved and the server hasn't been upgraded. There is too much work with too few people to do it. But when Donna comes in to visit me now and her eyes gleam with the excitement of new opportunity and possibility in her life, it really is all worth it.

For more on the Women's Subscription Enterprise visit womens.thebigissue.org.au and subscribe to change the lives of homeless and marginalised women.

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