Helping Big Issue vendors stay well over winter

As Australia’s flu season gets off to a deadly start, Big Issue vendors around the country have rolled up their sleeves to receive a free flu vaccination donated by Bupa. One of them, Mark, shares his story.


If you’ve ever passed through Melbourne’s Parliament Station you might recognise Mark.

He’s famous in that neck of the woods for his infectious smile and cheery disposition as he sells The Big Issue magazine to commuters.

“People call me ‘the happy man’ because I’m smiling all the time. People often say it’s good to see a smiling person so early in the morning,” he said.

Life’s pretty good for Mark these days but it’s taken hard work and a supportive community to get him to where he is.

“I wish I found The Big Issue 20 years earlier because it has just done so much for my confidence. I used to be embarrassed but I wear my uniform everywhere now. I’m proud to wear it,” he said.

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Bupa helps Big Issue vendors stay well over winter

“I used to just lock myself away. I was in my own little world with nothing to look forward to, nothing to aim for in life. Now I get the first train into the city in the morning because I’m anxious to get to work and meet people.”

The Big Issue is a social enterprise that helps those who are marginalised in society to help themselves. Many have faced homelessness, others live with intellectual or physical disability.

Vendors buy the magazine for $4.50 and sell it for $9, making $4.50 out of every sale.

“But sometimes it’s not the sale that’s important,” Mark said. “If someone gives me a compliment it’s more than a sale, just to be noticed and recognised that I’m doing something worthwhile.”

Vendor Sales and Support Co-ordinator Alex McKay says winter can be a tough time for vendors and that staying well is critical for their livelihood.

“It is a huge issue when it gets colder because they’re out on the streets all day selling the magazine, and many of them are sleeping out too. It’s really important for them to stay healthy and warm so they can continue to do their job and make a living,” she says.

“For most of our vendors, if they caught the flu, that would be them out for two weeks or more. So, it’s really critical that we can try to prevent that the best we can.”

Every fortnight Melbourne-based vendors gather in the Bourke Street office for a meeting and to collect the latest edition of the magazine.

This week, Bupa Wellness nurse Helen Ryan was also there, delivering free flu vaccinations donated by Bupa. 

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“The flu virus is quite a nasty virus and it can just hit you out of the blue even if you’re young, fit and healthy,” she said.

“It’s really important for Big Issue vendors to be vaccinated every year, especially as they’re outside all day in the elements and interacting with members of the public,” she said.

Bupa has been donating surplus vaccinations to disadvantaged groups for a number of years including family and women’s shelters and soup kitchens.

Bupa Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Manager Kate Driessen says this is the second year the company has teamed up with The Big Issue, with five Bupa Wellness nurses delivering the service to vendors in Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne.

“I think the really wonderful thing about this program is that it’s so mobile, we’re able to go out to The Big Issue offices which is a space where we know the vendors feel comfortable and safe,” Kate said.

“It’s easily accessible for them so they can receive a quick vaccination when they pick up their magazines and head back out to work without disrupting their day.”

Vendor Garry Salt says he chooses to work a 12 hour day so he can maintain his apartment and look after his cat Squishy. Taking time out sick isn’t an option.

“Some mornings I’ve got to go out in three or four degrees and sell at Flagstaff station. People say, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ but it’s just something I have to do to survive out here,” he said.

Mark says that without the gentle nudge, he wouldn’t have even thought about protecting himself against the flu.

“Getting the flu injection just wouldn’t have crossed my mind, but it makes me feel a lot better because people have actually died from the flu. I do feel protected now. It only took a few minutes and it’s given me peace of mind,” he said.

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