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I'm off the streets! ACHIEVEMENT: Big Issue seller Vernon has roof over his head thanks to TV charm.

Byline: By James Cartledge

EVEN in these days of wall-to-wall reality TV, Vernon Burgess is not your average telly star.

Whether it's the machine-gun speed speech or teeth like a row of condemned houses, something marks Vernon out as a little bit different.

The 41-year-old Big Issue salesman from Birmingham is television's unlikeliest celebrity thanks to his star turn in the BBC1show Skint, which charts the struggles of those down on their luck and struggling to make ends meet.

Over two series, viewers have seen the dad-of-two maintain his cheeky chappie demeanour despite ending up on the streets and resorting to begging for food and money.

But now Vernon's luck has changed after he was tracked down by his very own personal benefactor, Solihull businessman Paul Manning who has just launched a business book called X7.com.

After seeing Vernon on the show, Paul took him under his wing and helped him find a council house, open a bank account and even record his own CD. Vernon admitted he felt like he had won the Lottery.

"I'm so relieved to be off the streets. You see girls and drug addicts and it's horrific to see them on the streets in such a state," he said.

Vernon's upbringing in Kings Heath and Saltley was rooted in normality.

One of four children, he joined the Army cadets and travelled across Europe with them.

His dad, Desmond Knowles, died when Vernon was 11 and his mum, Esther, remarried Burma war veteran Norman Burgess, who adopted him. His problems began when he moved out of the family home.

Despite meeting the partner with whom he would have his two children - a 21-year-old daughter he would not name and a 13-year-old son, Shannon - Vernon developed the mental health problems which would plague him throughout his adult life.

He was a council tenant for 18 years, worked for the city council on community construction projects as a window fitter and qualified as a mechanic.

But, by the time the BBC's cameras caught up with him, Vernon had been single for a decade and was about to drift onto the streets for 14 months.

He said he lost everything when he had to move out of his vandalised council home in Sutton Coldfield and returned to discover it had been allocated to another tenant.

"I was forced to beg," Vernon said. "It was demeaning but desperate times demand desperate measures. The worst time for me was last winter when the snow came. I was wearing ex-Army kit and that saved my life.

Vernon's luck changed when his chirpy Big Issue sales patter impressed his regular customers in Erdington, who alerted BBC staff looking for potential Skint stars. He was paid nothing for the first series and just pounds 100 for the second, but said he had no regrets.

Thanks to Paul, Vernon now has a council house at King-swinford, Dudley, and was launching his CD, I'm Skint, which carries an anti-gun message, today.

A portrait of Vernon commissioned by Paul will also be handed over to Birmingham's Lord Mayor, Coun Mike Sharpe, to tie-in with a BBC season on homelessness.

HELP FOR CITY

HOMELESS: PAGE 55

The final episode in the current series of Skint will be shown on BBC1 at 10.35pm on Tuesday.

CAPTION(S):

BIG THANK-YOU... Vernon Burgess, who has starred in Skint, with businessman benefactor Paul Manning. Picture: Neil Pugh' Photosales No.: NP021006Skint - 3
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Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Date:Oct 5, 2006
Words:571
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