Big Issue Vendor

John Bird: We can stop the looming crisis. But we’ll need to build alliances

We do not want to live in a society that is busted by austerity again
London, England - October 20, 2012: Protesters march against David Cameron's Coalition Government spending cuts that are taking place in the UK public sector. In the image, two women of African descent hold up a banner referring to the women of Yarl's Wood Removal Centre - a removal immigration centre for women

When we look back I am sure that we will view our current times as ‘interesting.’ Perhaps confusing. Perhaps lacking in clarity and order.

I find myself wanting to imagine myself looking back: I want, in some sense, to get some clarity out of this situation. I want to extract the essentials from the white noise of everyday political life. Why? Because it’s almost impossible to believe current political behaviour. It’s almost impossible to trust the leadership, yet also impossible to trust what else is on offer.

There is only one big issue for me today. It is an ‘all hands to the pump’ time. It is “How do we stop the slip into recession destroying the lives of millions?” time.  I am repeatedly saying that we started The Big Issue 29 years ago to ‘help the homeless to help themselves’. The homeless on the streets, in the doorways, in the parks, under their cardboard mockeries of home. In that time we have had to deal with thousands of people who have become homeless. We were not there to prevent them slipping into street life.

But now, in Covid-19 times, we face the most spectacular event of our lives: possibly hundreds of thousands of people falling homeless. Dwarfing all the homelessness that has ever occurred in these isles. And not just in these isles. It is a universal condition. Yet, in the midst of this there seems little political clarity. People are seemingly carrying on doing their best to undermine the authority of the government. Why? Because the government has seemed to be signally wrong on so many counts with regard to Covid-19 preparation and prevention.

We have to stop people descending into the treacle of homelessness because it is impossible at times to get back out of it. It rots the soul, the mind, the body

To haul the government to task at the moment takes energy. Energy and concentration that needs to be put to stopping hundreds of thousands becoming homeless, jobless, and lost. “First, see the hole in the dyke!” is my argument. We can prevent this onslaught of lost jobs and lost homes. By making the government put all of its eggs in a Recession Survival programme. This is the time to build alliances between business, government, community and educators to work to stop homelessness occurring on this scale.

It is not enough, as some have suggested, to make sure that local authorities and homeless providers have enough accommodation to help those presenting themselves homeless. That is locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. We have to stop people descending into the treacle of homelessness because it is impossible at times to get back out of it. It rots the soul, the mind, the body.

I know I have become ever more repetitious, banging on about homelessness prevention. Because I do not see the political masters in Parliament and the country scared enough of this recession, prioritising keeping people in work and home.

We know this government did stupid, clumsy things. We know that at times the leadership was wish-washy. But they are the elected power, and unless we can come up with something better we have no choice but for us all to make this work. A coalition of effort to stop prosperity going out the door. A united front against the fascist mentality-creating reality that poverty and the loss of prosperity will bring.

Having gone through an unprecedented time like the Covid-19 emergency, and having experts and scientists disagreeing all along the way, I am not surprised the government at times cocked it up. Unnecessary deaths have occurred. Lives lost unnecessarily. But a meltdown of our prosperity will bring untold deaths, untold increase in social collapse. Untold murders and crime that happen when prosperity goes out the window and poverty comes in the door.


There are currently around 2,000 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

We can pissball about, point-scoring. Make the usual ideological noises. But now is the time for national unity. For us to stop trying to knock the leader off the horse in mid-stream. We will all live to regret it if we don’t get the government concentrated on the evictions that are coming up. On the unemployment that is going to overwhelm us.

Time to lay aside the fact that fumbling has been much in evidence. Time to put our minds to job creation, eviction-proofing and industry-supporting, to educating and training for new job opportunities.

We do not want to live in a society that is busted by austerity again. That is milked of all human kindness in the interests of ideologues who think you need to cut, cut, cut.

And as I have said several times, the savings made by the austerity boys of not so long ago were minimal and life-threatening for many communities. Death stalks the austerity road.

In fact austerity is too, too expensive. It costs a packet. It looks good on paper. But it looks bad in the streets and in the communities it has blasted.

For the next year we have to learn to work together as if we were at war. And we are. A war to keep homelessness from hitting and destroying the next generation, and the generation after; as well as the generation we are living through. Like my Bill, which is passing through Parliament, it’s about protecting the interests of our future generations.

The Big Issue’s ‘Ride Out Recession Alliance’ is putting homelessness prevention at the centre of its message and its work. It’s about jobs and home, home and jobs: let’s not break that link.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue