John Bird: Homelessness is not just for Christmas

Treating poverty of this kind as a seasonal concern gets you nowhere fast

This year I didn’t participate in the fiction of seasonal concern for the homeless. I was asked to go on TV and radio, but I chose to ignore the pleas from anxious-sounding producers who talked about the terrible regime of homelessness that hits them whenever Christmas approaches. And then an interviewer who pulls sorrowful faces, until the next item, the largest chocolate Santa in the world perhaps.

I’ve spent so many Christmases doing this gig, and when you raise the question that this is all a farce, “try talking about homelessness in the cold winds of January”, they smile in incomprehension.

Homelessness is not just a Christmas phenomenon, yet for centuries, certainly since Dickens’ time, we have seen it as the backdrop to Christmas joy.

I assure you, I am not a cynic. I am a sceptic. That means I reserve judgement as to what we can achieve over Christmas for the homeless. We probably have a window of universal concern about homelessness that lasts (perhaps) six weeks. And then it is back to letting homeless issues join the hundred other reasons we should be dissatisfied with how those in need are treated.

As I’ve said for too long, I think it is a human rights abuse to allow people to sleep, live and fall apart on the streets. That we should have alternatives, therapeutic communities where people can be removed of the reasons why they have become homeless and needy in the first place. Where the demons are dug out that cause collapse in a person’s life.

That mental health issues bubble about us as we watch beggars and street dwellers trying to make sense of this blasted and broken life.


There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

So going on telly and sharing a few sad faces will change nothing and is, in fact, part of the problem. Treating poverty of this kind as a seasonal concern gets you nowhere fast. We have a system that you might call winter comfort. Yet the reason why people are homeless – and why we need to help them – happens in all the other seasons.

It is a sentimental attachment to poverty that’s at work here. A rising of tears for the poor. And sentimental commitments become a surefire guarantee that this time next year we’ll be going through the charade again. Seasonal tears.

If you’re in need then Christmas is a fierce time to survive. It tears into you. Because often with need goes loneliness and separation – as well as an inability to buy yourself a happy Christmas.

One of greatest pieces of theatre I saw about Christmas and the emptiness of it was Steven Berkoff’s Harry’s Christmas, which I saw at the Donmar Warehouse in London in the late Eighties. I don’t know if I saw it at Christmas, but it sent a chill through me that was difficult to shrug off. What was interesting was how this one man, Harry – and this was before the Harry of Potter fame – personified how modern life rips the guts out of people’s ability to find people to communicate with.

Possibly the most awful scene was that of Harry putting up his Christmas cards in his lone little room. And putting up last year’s as well in order to convince himself that he wasn’t as neglected and lost in the world. But in fact he was. He had nothing that we associate with human life. To him, “Christmas is like an avalanche coming. You want to run away, but there’s nowhere to hide.”

It is a sentimental attachment to poverty that’s at work here

I might be particularly open to such readings of Christmas, having spent too many of them lost and wandering; although my now vast family make sure I’m provided for.

But still the echo, the shadow, the cloud of Christmas is not far from my imagination. And the feeling that we should not continue the charade of seasonal concern for even one more winter. And commit to life the struggle to outlaw homelessness (and the attendant loneliness that goes with it) forever.

But if you do want to lift your spirits and see through the Christmas gloom, then Simon Callow, a particular friend of The Big Issue, is doing a one-man show of  A Christmas Carol, by that fellow Dickens, at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End until January 12. I have seen this incredibly diverse, exaggerated, tragicomic cocktail of love and greed, of joy and pain and walked on air afterwards as if Dickens can always pull the rabbit out of the hat and make us realise the ingenuity and deep love human beings can have for each other. Once the shards of greed and self interest are removed, that is.

Christmas is a symbol of possibility and potential. It never lives up to its promise the year long. Perhaps we need a Christmas political party that meets regularly, stands in elections and forms governments and struggles to deliver on the promise of Christmas, which is the contagion of human love for one and all.

I do wish it was Christmas every day. And I do wish that wishing could turn into something more solid.