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Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Carrying a torch

October 06 2011
 Homeless people are among the nominees to carry the Olympic flame


If you’re a little tired of all things 2012, of budgets, of timetables, of lack of tickets, of Boris Johnson’s infallible enthusiasm for what is a glorified sports day, do pause and take note of one hugely positive factor to come out of Britain’s preparation for The Games: an outpouring of appreciation for rough sleeping champions.

When The London Olympic Games Committee put out the call for “8,000 inspirational Torchbearers during the Olympic Torch Relay” - a team intended to represent “peace, unity and friendship” - a clutch of nominations for Big Issue vendors across Britain caught the eye of local and national media.

Community football trainers, lollipop ladies and oh-so-worthy volunteers aside: a number of Brits voted for the person who greeted them with a smile, some cheer and the kind of endless enthusiasm for their daily challenge that truly inspired us.

In London, a vendor known only as Easton, who pitches up outside White City in West London every morning, and often Euston train station in the afternoons, received a number of praising letters from those who see him every day direct to the Big Issue magazine. Manners, a huge smile, and an unwavering enthusiasm even on wet or cold days pushed Easton into the hearts of workers who passed him by on the tube. The 57-year-old, who was born in Jamaica but came to Britain in the late 1960s, slept rough in a churchyard before finding shelter in Hackney.

White City - named because it once hosted the Games at the turn of the Century - seems an appropriate home for a nominee and Easton told the Big Issue: “I’d love to be part of history when the Olympics come to London again.”

He’s not alone. In Bournemouth, 82-year-old Gordon Roberts - a familiar and punctual face for many in the Southern seaside town - has over 18,000 ‘fans’ on his Facebook site nominating him for Olympic Torch glory. Having slept rough in the region for over 20 years, Gordon has clocked up notoriety for his ability to know the time, without watch or clock, just by his sense of the day. As a result, t-shirts are now on sale asking: “What time is it? Olympic Torch Time!” - with proceeds going to local homelessness charities.

Still in the South West, a Bristol-based Big Issue vendor, 41-year-old Jeff Knight, found himself backed by a 13,000-strong Facebook campaign to get him to carry the torch. His campaign was launched by local student, Michael Walsh, who told the local newspaper: “He is a valuable member of the Bristolian community, a local legend within the student population, and a great ambassador for the Big Issue magazine.” Jeff is renowned for his cheeriness, and even complimenting people on their appearance as they rush to work. When one mean-spirited Bristol man penned a critical letter of the nomination, suggesting the vendor was cheating the benefits system, it was so vehemently opposed that it had to be taken down from the Bristol Evening Post website.

Members of the rough sleeping community too often find themselves the recipients of negative social stereotypes: for being a nuisance or addicted, not worthy of help. It would not be surprising to learn that life on the streets often leads to feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression. These three stories should not only inspire, but remind everyone that those without a home are not problems but an important part of our community. And for every person disapproving of ‘begging,’ there are many who feel supportive and sympathetic - even if it takes a catalyst like The Games to make them show it.

The Olympic torch relay will be a 70-day long event starting at Land’s End on 19 May 2012, which will see the torch carried thousands of miles around Britain before coming to the London 2012 Games site. It is hoped that the 8000 bearers will come from a cross section of British society and represent all walks of life.

It is not known how Gordon, Jeff and Easton’s applications are fairing. 28,000 successfully short-listed nominees will have been contacted by email on 16 September asking them if they wish to pursue the application for the final torchbearers. At the time of going to press all three were waiting for more information. The final places will be confirmed in February 2012.

The Pavement is keen to learn if any other members of the rough sleeping or hostel community have been nominated, or if there are more unsung heroes out there, so please get in touch.