Opinion

John Bird: We can't rest until we prevent mass homelessness

I will stop being so repetitive, so obsessed, when all the bits of the social support puzzle are in place

homelessness and Rough sleeping Alexander Baxevanis

The number of people deemed to be 'living on the streets' in London is now the highest since 2019. Image credit: Alexander Baxevanis/Flickr

I have become the most one-sided, limited, obsessed thinker, reminding me of the days when I was an aspirant painter. Then London, the place I came back to after youthful incarceration, was a series of galleries, museums, art shops and art bookshops. Nothing else mattered. Not pubs, nor discos, dancehalls or coffee bars.

Only places where I could see art, going north, south, east or west in pursuit of paintings and sculptures, drawings and watercolours to drink in. If you stopped me in the streets, a thin, underfed, rough-looking boy, you might think I might have escaped from an earlier Dickens time. Obsessive, repetitive, and probably boring to most.

How I managed to get through my day job as a bin emptying, path sweeping, fence mending, tree and bush trimming, grass cutting employee of a London Borough without pissing everyone off I can’t imagine.

And here, 50 years later, I have turned into a variation of the obsessed of my early manhood times.

You could stop me in the street and ask how I am and the following conversation might occur:

“John, you’re looking good.”

“Thank you. I don’t want hundreds and thousands of people to fall into homelessness due to poverty caused by Covid-19.”

“Oh. So how’s the family?”

“Still attached. We really do have to stop mass homelessness.”

“Really?”

“Really. We started The Big Issue nearly 30 years ago to help the homeless to help themselves. Now we have to help the ‘homed’ stay out of homelessness.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Well, nice to have this chat.”

“We can and we must stop it.”

So I have returned to the obsessive because I am sure that one of the biggest pieces of social justice we could do today is to stop people by the thousands falling into homelessness.

(As I write this I take down from my shelf a book of poems by the German poet Bertolt Brecht. I’m looking for a poem I once handprinted as a poster many decades ago. The poem is precisely about this need to narrow your vision, to obsess your mind with a very big thing. For Brecht it was the arrival of Hitler. Alas I can’t find the poem, but it describes the need to focus! Focus! Focus! In a highly descriptive way.)

I am pleased to see The Big Issue and its increasingly active Ride Out Recession Alliance (RORA) is trying to do that; big time. More and more people are waking up to the call for uniting our efforts so that there is not mass homelessness, that would dwarf all previous outbursts of homelessness in the UK.

The Big Issue as a ‘clearing house’ for solutions will of course be central to the strategy. Not just in the magazine but also on the website, and in our social media campaign.

In some ways it also reminds me of the early days of  The Big Issue. Then loads of us were going around telling the world about this new ‘hand up not a hand out’ mantra. A mantra that suggested the best way to help someone was to give them a hand up, and not simply a few quid for food for the day. Get them out of need by helping them from the streets. Help them stabilise themselves so that more could be done to help them.

We cannot just allow people to slip into homelessness. It’s a terrible place to condemn our young to

One of the big causes back then of youth homelessness, the biggest sign that society was crap at helping its young, was social security policy. The government decided to take benefits off of young people living at home with their unemployed parents. So the young in these blighted homes, where there was no work to be found, were removed of the chance of making some kind of contribution; even if it was state money.

Needless to say thousands of young people, largely from Scotland and the north of England, flooded south to London to beg. But at times even becoming rent boys and rent girls.

That was the reality that The Big Issue found itself in when created in 1991. An ocean of thousands of young people sleeping rough in doorways in London’s West End. And largely because of an attempt at making people more uncomfortable on social security.

The largest amount of young people came from the industrially collapsed areas. That had been collapsed in the previous decade through the decision to remove government subsidies to all the main industries. Washing away over a hundred years of work and community without first planning what would replace it.

Now of course, 30 years later we will have to see the government acting differently. We cannot just allow people to slip into homelessness. It’s a terrible place to condemn our young to. A hell on earth.

I will stop being so repetitive, so obsessed, when all the bits of the social support puzzle are in place. And that means taking our government through a fuller and deeper understanding of the appalling damage it will do to all of us if thousands slip from their security into the abyss of the insecure. If you have any ideas about saving the many, you can get involved with the RORA campaign. What’s your big idea?

Get involved here or email us at rora@bigissue.com now.

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

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