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The Big Issue's Oldest Vendor Struggling To Sell Magazines As Pandemic Clears Streets

The Big Issue vendor Louis is larger-than-life and loves his job. But as the coronavirus pandemic empties the Melbourne streets, he's struggling.

Regular commuters who pass through Melbourne's Southern Cross train station would know Louis.

Every morning and evening, the 69-year-old puts on his red cap and headphones and heads out to let the city know about The Big Issue.

“Good morning Melbourne, The Big Issue magazine … hot off the press, the very best,” he sings, with a huge smile on his face.

“Don’t be shy, give it a go … Get your Big Issue now, from Louis!”

Louis has been making a living by selling The Big Issue magazine in Melbourne for 24 years.

The not-for-profit employs hundreds of vulnerable people in the community who are homeless, marginalised or disadvantaged.

Many of them sell the magazine on streets across the country, and around the world, earning AU$4.50 for every $9 edition sold.

“I’ve been here working [at] train stations since 1996 when the magazine started,” Louis told 10 News First.

"I have a few people who know me now ... I'm very happy here."

But the coronavirus pandemic has changed things drastically. Louis is now selling one magazine an hour -- a lot less than usual -- as the streets empty. He said that’s enough to buy himself a few groceries.

“There’s nobody walking around at all anymore,” he said.

“That is bad enough. But those that are left ... there’s no sociability.”

The Big Issue Editor Amy Hethering said social connection is something vendors come to rely on.

"The income is, of course, vital but for a lot of our vendors their customers become their friends, and there is a community around them," Hethering told 10 daily.

That community is quickly disappearing.

As COVID-19 spreads, Hethering said the organisation has been monitoring advice to ensure the health and safety of vendors and customers across the country -- and find new ways to support them.

"Some of our vendors have chosen not to work at this time, but others are still out there earning an income. It's a really tough time for them," she said.

For Louis, the crisis is unlike anything he has seen before.

“You’ve had wars and all of that … but now everybody is affected," he said.

Louis was born in New York and grew up in the Bronx. A keen traveller, he met his Australian wife in Kathmandu before the pair settled in Sydney, and later, Melbourne.

In 1996, she encouraged him to start working with The Big Issue Australia to make ends meet and pay for medical bills. She was 43 when she died from a stroke.

“She’s in heaven looking after me … she’s giving me instructions what to do,” Louis said.

He said The Big Issue helped to pull him out of homelessness.

But there's growing concern the country's homeless population are not being looked after, and that increased pressure on housing could see numbers could rise.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 116,000 Australians are homeless on any given night. The World Health Organisation (WHO) identifies those who live in crowded or informal housing -- or in no housing at all -- as the most exposed to contracting the virus.

Steven Schmidtke is from the Sacred Heart Mission, a not-for-profit that offers a free meal and care to the homeless and disadvantaged in Victoria.

He said anxiety is increasing as the pandemic drags on.

"The longer it goes, people are feeling more and more on edge," he told 10 News First.

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Sacred Heart Mission has also modified its services to ensure staff and clients aren't put at greater risk. While its meals program is still running and a doctor remains on-site, fundraisers have been cancelled and the op shops are quiet.

"We're looking at a range of options to help support people over this time, and it's vitally important that we keep in touch with them," he said.

"Were clients don't have a phone, we are looking at getting one for them. And we're looking at what happens next."

Charities like Sacred Heart Mission are easing the strain on the homeless population during the pandemic. But as businesses close and more people lose their jobs, calls are ramping up to protect those who can no longer afford to pay their rent or mortgage.

It’s understood housing relief was on the agenda at a National Cabinet meeting on Wednesday night after NSW Parliament passed a Greens amendment enabling the government to ban evictions and limit the power of landlords through the pandemic.

"We are on the brink of a serious housing crisis,” Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi said.

"As jobs evaporate, so does the ability to pay rent or pay off a mortgage.

Without swift government action, we could see many more people homeless or put under massive housing stress in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, The Big Issue is urging the public to continue supporting vendors -- even those who aren't out on the streets.

People can take out a month-to-month magazine subscription, make a donation or send a message to their local vendor on social media.

And for now, Louis will keep singing his tune on the streets of Melbourne.