John Bird: Let this crisis bring a change in how we fight poverty

Our Big Issue is innovating to develop the tools to survive so that we can continue supporting our vendors

Imagine for a moment you are John Anthony Bird. You are 74 years of age, which seems like you are the most antique of persons. Imagine that for close on 30 years you have been running a homeless project that suddenly folds in the middle of a pandemic. And that you are unable to keep the show on the road, because you are banned from the road, the street, the high street and the plaza; and anywhere else the public congregate. Banned from selling the product that you developed with a team back in 1991, and which has put millions and millions of pounds directly into the pockets of people in need.

So what is to be done? Here I am having to drop out because it is the staff of The Big Issue itself who have jumped to the task. I am, dare I say, ‘the pretty face’. I’m wheeled in and wheeled out for press and publicity, for TV and radio. I’m the mouth. And by God what a mouth I have on me.

But imagine that you are the said Bird and you are called down to Victoria in London’s centre to do a TV news item about what the government is doing about the homeless in a new world where everyone has to socially isolate. And there you walk swiftly past 50-60 people sitting around, completely abject. Homeless, rough-sleeping human beings, the children of mothers and fathers like ourselves. Of course, being the said Bird you have been marinated in homelessness for even longer than the 30 years of The Big Issue. Sure, were you not homeless yourself as a child and youth and runaway? Surely there is nothing to surprise you in this day and age around street living.

Unfortunately the said Bird was overwhelmed. Completely and utterly overwhelmed by the sight of the homeless gathered, broken, suffering and hurt. Why?

Because when I have worked with homeless people over the years, and when we first started, I was struck by the belligerent sense of spirit. They thought I was a prick, on most occasions, but they kept that spirit. What I saw in Victoria was the broken spirit, the dispirited, the overwhelmed-by-abject-suffering.

Socially isolating in a car, I had to do my bit and scarper. For here were dozens of people who needed to be lifted from the street and given isolation; so that they did not with their lowered immune systems become the fatalities that we are all terrified of.

We need the 60,000 people who normally purchase the magazine to carry on fulfilling their Big Issue reading habit this time of the year

The government says it is lifting homeless people and putting them into budget hotels so that they can be cared for. That has to happen to every homeless person in the whole of the UK. For if we leave people out then there will be deaths on our hands. There will be intensive care for many so they stay alive.

Clumsily at first we must round on the problem. But with time we must develop the skills to aid and abet and change and assist people to get out of vulnerability. We must become experts in a record period of time. And not have the poor and needy left out of the equation.

Stop imagining yourself a 74-year-old John Anthony Bird trying to learn new tricks. Imagine the enormous potential of the community coming together all over the country; to praise and assist and help the incredibly brave NHS. But the greatest aid we can give them is to stay at home and sit on our arses, if need be. Stay out of becoming a problem that the NHS has to solve. Stop the problem from happening: prevent it by staying well and truly out of harm’s way.


The Big Issue magazine is read by an estimated 379,195 people across the UK and circulates 82,294 copies every week.

Our Big Issue is innovating to develop the tools to survive so that we can continue supporting our vendors; even though they cannot vend at the moment. We will continue to try and sell copies by subscription, and in supermarkets and newsagents. And we will bring you from this week an app that will do more and more. Supply the magazine digitally, yes. But also through our ‘Big Community’ project bring in all of those groups and individuals who are trying to bring social justice – yes, that’s what it is – to the vulnerable and the needy so that they can survive the attack on health that Covid-19 represents.

Lift every homeless person off the streets so that they can survive the pandemic. Help us keep The Big Issue going so that we can continue our work to make the homeless paramount in their own transformation: by giving them income and work to do.

But, but – and this is a big but – there is a big chance that at the other end we will do things differently. Let us once and for all after this viral nightmare not allow homeless people to return to the human rights abuse of rough-sleeping. Let’s accommodate the homeless within our society and not outside it, so they’re not just an appendage to our lives.

We need the 60,000 people who normally purchase the magazine to carry on fulfilling their Big Issue reading habit this time of the year. If we manage that we’ll be able to continue giving a plus to the lives of the many who have lived in a suffering minus. If you haven’t done so already, do subscribe.

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