A Homeless Man's Success Story
by BETTI CSIBA
"Wha gwan mon, everything irie?" A typical greeting from Jeff Knight – a greeting I had the pleasure of hearing every day for two years. Jeff Knight doesn’t own a fancy car; he doesn’t wear flashy shoes and he doesn’t work in some high-rise in the City. He lives on the streets of Bristol, yet he’s a prime example of success.
"Hey darling, you’re so beautiful. Have a day just as gorgeous as you are," says Jeff to a woman with a grim look on her face, struggling to carry her groceries home. Her face lights up, her attitude visibly changes, and she smiles. This is what the man does best: he creates sunshine with a few friendly words, a high-five, or even a hug. A Bristol legend, Jeff Knight sells The Big Issue magazine – a magazine dedicated to helping homeless people – in several busy central spots of British cities.
All we know about Jeff’s early life is the information given to us on The Big Issue Facebook page. He fled from Jamaica nearly two decades ago, came to the UK and ended up on the streets of Bristol. Homeless and without a job. He doesn’t go into detail when it comes to his life before working with The Big Issue Foundation. He only mentions that he was begging, and "getting trouble with the police". But one can imagine that life hasn’t been easy for Jeff Knight since he arrived in the UK - a foreign country, far away from sunny Jamaica, with no friends or family. Cold, in a strange land, unable to get a stable job, in constant confrontation with the police and with nowhere to go, no one to rely on. The homeless in the UK are ignored by others, and even more invisible to politicians.
An encounter with a woman selling The Big Issue changed Jeff’s life. He signed up and started working with the organization. They provided him with a source of income, as they do with all the other vendors, but also gave him something even more important: purpose. Ever since, Jeff starts his day as early as 7 AM and spends the day on the streets meeting people from all walks of life.
Whoever meets Jeff in person doesn’t forget him easily. With the life he’s had so far, you’d be forgiven to assume he’d be a surly man, at war with the entire world – but you couldn’t be more wrong. Not once did I walk past him without him pulling me in for a big hug, or just telling me to "go and study hard". I’m not the only one who has received comments like this. He’s one of the biggest sources of encouragement for students at the University of Bristol, who pop out to Sainsbury's for lunch and talk to Jeff for a few minutes. He grinningly chats away with people in their forties, working long hours in the nearby offices. They go out to get a sandwich and a breath of fresh air, but Jeff provides them with a dose of happiness. Even if you don’t buy a magazine, this cheerful man still has a kind word for you and genuinely wishes you a good day. Jeff Knight is the most positive person you’ll ever meet.
In a way, The Big Issue saved Jeff. Even if it didn’t help him earn a substantial income, it offered him an opportunity to do something useful and legal. The money he receives is not charity, nor is it given out of pity. It isn't 'dirty money' either, acquired in an illegal way. It is fair compensation for fair work. The Big Issue organization treats the homeless as self-employed entrepreneurs, which gives people like Jeff the much-need independence, but also pride in what they do. What we do for a living is part of our identity: it’s part of who we are. That is why initiatives like The Big Issue make a big difference in homeless people’s life. Jeff became the most successful Big Issue salesman in Bristol.
There’s plenty of people selling The Big Issue all over the UK, but there’s very few who receive the recognition and publicity Jeff has enjoyed in the past years. School kids, university students, mums running errands, bank managers on their lunch break – they all see Jeff in the central Bristol and remember his charisma. And Jeff remembers them too. I’ve often witnessed him chatting to some of his ‘regulars’. He’ would talk to a young mother about how her youngest is doing at school; he would check in with a car salesman to see whether he’s hit his target for the month; he would even remember that I went home to visit family and he would ask me about my trip. And all of this he would do with a smile on his face, radiating nothing but love. His life-affirming character made him a colourful, memorable brightspot in the grisly South-Western city and, eventually, brought him fame.
As the video of Jeff tells us, Bristolians came together to campaign and petition for Jeff to carry the Olympic torch during the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Even though he wasn’t selected for the noble task in the end, the man became even more recognized and respected among Bristolians. This, however, wasn’t the last campaign for Jeff. In 2016 people started an online fundraising campaign for him, claiming that he would run for mayor. Even though this initiative turned out to be an April Fool’s story, the campaign raised quite a bit of money for Jeff, showing the support of the people whose life he’s touched. When asked about the initiative, Jeff said the following: "It means a lot to me that the people of Bristol have come together and given me this. There are beautiful people out there and I am very grateful. I have learnt that money don’t give you happiness, but it helps."
The same year, Jeff appeared in not one but two artworks in the city. A street artist painted a mural of the local legend in Stokes Croft – the hip, cultural quarter of Bristol – as a tribute. Not much later, Jeff became part of a series on The Big Issue vendors in Bristol. Later that year, the series inspired illustrator James Wilson to include Jeff in a giant mural which collects "everything that’s great about the city". In early 2017 he was named one of the fifty coolest Bristolians alive today. The Bristol Post described him as follows: "Perhaps the most recognizable man in Clifton, and almost certainly the most popular, Jeff sells the Big Issue to posh students and poor office-workers alike with wit, humour and charm."
So where is Jeff now? No, he didn’t become the new mayor of the city; he’s still on the streets selling magazines and greeting people in his affectionate and joking way. The Big Issue and the fame brought him neither wealth nor a nine-to-five job. It made me wonder why everything that’s happened to him didn’t help him to break out of his situation. The truth is: Jeff is happy doing what he has been doing for the past years. He has told me: Being outdoors and meeting people is what keeps him happy and alive. Even if he did get employed at an office, he wouldn’t be happy, since his free spirit drives him to walk the streets of Bristol and bring a little bit of laughter into people’s lives. In the end, The Big Issue didn’t get Jeff a job, but it did give him a sense of purpose, a feeling of pride and showed him the effect he has on people.
Each and every one of my schoolmates, along with countless others, remember Jeff as one of the happiest people who can cheer you up in an instant. We reminisce, tell stories about him and always save two pounds for a copy of The Big Issue to help him out. He’s more than just a friendly face: he’s a local legend. What’s this if not success?