George Clarke: ‘We are on the verge of a poverty pandemic’

An architect, housing campaigner, TV presenter and now a Big Issue ambassador, George Clarke explains why he's backing the Ride Out Recession Alliance

Becoming a Big Issue ambassador is a lifelong commitment for me. I am so honoured.

I wish we did not have the problem with homelessness in this country. I wish The Big Issue was not needed. But we have it. And it is. So I’m all in. It’s a lifetime commitment for me because The Big Issue very directly and very powerfully makes a difference to people. I mean that from the heart.

I’ve seen too much of the pain that homelessness can bring. The work that The Big Issue has been doing for almost 30 years actively changes lives and improves people’s chances in so many ways.

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The idea of home is central to everything that I do. It’s not architecture with a big capital A – I do homes and I do housing. For me, that’s the most important piece of architecture in anyone’s life. And I’ve seen this all of my life, even on the estate that I lived in. As simple or as affordable or as basic as your home might be – and it doesn’t need to be yours – it can be rented. But if it’s stable, then you’ve got a chance of everything else in life.

It gives you a chance to put other things in place in a stable way. If you haven’t got a stable roof over your head, how can your kids focus at school? What stress and anxiety is that causing you, not having stability for you and your family?

It all starts with home. If you’ve got that stability, you’ve got a chance at other things in life. Hopefully your health can be decent and stable, your kids can go to school every morning knowing that they are coming home to the same house each night and they’ve got their own bed to sleep in.

I’m absolutely petrified – and I don’t use that word lightly – about what’s going to happen over the next year or two years.

The thought of being homeless brings me to tears, because I’ve seen it first-hand and I’ve seen it for so many years. And I see people who have gone through hell, quite often through absolutely no fault of their own. I am now in a very fortunate position in my life and I’ve never been homeless, thank God. I am from a working-class family and I know what it’s like to only just have enough money each month to get by if you’re lucky.

My parents live in a council house. And it’s a very stable and safe and secure council house. My mum and dad worked hard but they were on relatively low incomes, earning just enough to pay the bills each month. It is only when I look back now I can appreciate that having just enough and having a good, safe, stable home can transform your life. I look back on my childhood with such happy memories. But we didn’t have a single penny in excess. My parents weren’t saving. Forget about opening a savings account, that concept just didn’t exist for us.

And I thought the rest of the world lived the same way that we did. I was in my little bubble on my little estate and thought that was the way the world worked. Only when you see more of the world do you realise there’s such massive inequality between those that have and those that have not.

I’m absolutely petrified – and I don’t use that word lightly – about what’s going to happen over the next year or two years.

We had a big affordability crisis and homelessness crisis even before Covid. And we’re going to get levels of mass unemployment over the next two years. It is going to be bad. How the hell are people going to pay their bills? How are they going to pay their mortgage or rent?

We’ve already got over a million people in fuel poverty alone, having to make a decision about whether they eat or put the heating on. How the fuck have we let Britain get into that state? Now that is all going to be exacerbated by the Covid crisis.

People are going to die. People are going to die and this is not about the Covid pandemic, we are on the verge of a poverty pandemic.

So I’m supporting The Big Issue push. What’s amazing about the work The Big Issue is doing with RORA – the Ride Out Recession Alliance – is that it’s pulling together influential and good people to prevent more people going from that position of just getting by to facing unemployment and homelessness.

RORA’s key messages are very simple: Keep people in their homes and keep people in employment. This is why RORA is so important – it is about getting that very simple message across. We need to keep people in their homes at this time – it is an investment, on behalf of the country, to prevent homelessness.

I feel duty bound to do something. So that’s why I’m joining The Big Issue and that’s why I’m going to be making a big noise about the work of RORA.

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Because if the government understood the realities of what’s going on across the country they would have some emergency measures in already. It’s not just about caring about those most in need, it is actually an investment in this country.

It will be cheaper to make these moves to support people to stay in their jobs and their homes now than it will be to make people homeless and then have to deal with an enormous poverty problem that could last for generations.

The government needs to realise we are here to help. All of us at The Big Issue and involved in RORA are making this commitment of our time and effort because we care about the people who are most in need. We don’t want to fight. We don’t want to battle. I really don’t need a fight with the government. This needs to be a joint effort to do the right thing – and we have decades of expertise in this area.

And in the meantime, as difficult as it is for everyone at the minute, anything that you can give – whether it’s your time or whether it’s money for a Big Issue subscription or a donation to their Christmas Appeal – please, please, please do it.