John Bird: Let’s keep our communities alive for the people most in need

We must use this crisis to build a better society for future generations. That includes keeping people in their homes even when their ability to pay the rent has disappeared

Alice in Alice in Wonderland is certainly changed by her fall down a hole. She learns so much, it would seem, about the crazy Victorian and adult world outside the hole. So many systems and oddities, so many weird uses of resources. So many crazy people in positions of power.

I’m sure someone has written about Alice recently with reference to Covid-19 and the lockdown. It seems such an obvious link: a world that is so different from the norm, a world transformed. Almost a dream world and not a world at all. I will only ask the question that if Alice fell down that hole, what did she do with her knowledge about the machinations of Victorian society, the weirdness of its oppressive systems? Did she go out and activate the knowledge and use it for the betterment of society?

There is no evidence, after the sharp learning curve of falling down a rabbit hole and going through a bizarre string of events, that Alice actually did anything with this knowledge. I hope we will do more than Alice once we get out of our particular locked-down hole.

Let us savour for as long as possible the sense of solidarity and community purpose. Let’s not ‘do an Alice’ and come up from the hole and just go about our normal life. Let’s grasp the lessons that we have learned and make the most of them.

The first lesson must be that we are all in this together. It is clear how that sense of togetherness brought us to appreciate each other. The indivisibility must be built on. It cannot be dumped once the scramble begins again. But how do we make that first lesson stick, that we are, as it were, one whole, one multi-handed reality? We must preserve the local links that we have made. The neighbourliness, the sharing and the social kindness. We must support those in our community who need help, following the example of the Covid-19 support groups.

We have to realise that the pre-Covid-19 community was patchy and not necessarily joined up. And that loneliness was one of the big undealt-with tragedies of modern life.

According to medical evidence, loneliness and social isolation are the equivalent of smoking 13 cigarettes a day. Loneliness and social separation are a precursor to mental health problems, which are often a precursor to social collapse, and to homelessness.  Our life in lockdown has put a greater focus on our ability to break the malaise of separation. And to stop looking at ourselves as little ships that just pass in the night, contactless, unconnected.

The decision to remove homeless people from the streets, though not entirely achieved, was the second thing that, to my mind, we should not lose

The co-operative movement grew out of the needs thrown up by hunger and illness amongst working people in the early 19th century. They bought things collectively. They shared purchases, bags of flour that they bought in bulk. Sharing purchases  that can lead to greater levels of cooperation is in my opinion the plus side of what we are going through and have been through.

Shared cooking, community cooking could be a brilliant way of ensuring that we avoid a nutritional deficit within the community as a whole. And recognising that the need to share resources – as we have been doing during the lockdown – must continue to be met. 

We will then hopefully have learned things from our particular rabbit hole that lead to a social transformation of quite dynamic proportions. The Big Issue will be building on the many community links it has made over the decades, through its magazine and its online and digital forms. It will be upping its community role. For we all know that a well-functioning community reduces the wretchedness that leads to isolation and social collapse.

Alice’s adventures in the labyrinthine world of grownups do show that silly things are often done because they are accepted as the done thing. One of the important lessons that has come out of the virus is that cabinet-style government is like a Swiss cheese: full of holes. Or the proverbial curate’s egg, good in parts, comes to mind.

The decision to remove homeless people from the streets, though not entirely achieved, was the second thing that, to my mind, we should not lose. We cannot decant the homeless back onto the streets. We cannot allow the human rights abuse of homelessness and street living to be returned to.

A hue and cry was taken up last week by many concerned people when it seemed that the government was going to renege on its commitment to keep people off the streets after the curfew. Hopefully this was all a load of brouhaha, found to be untrue. We do need to look out for rough sleepers, and ensure they do not return to their deathly lives on the streets.

And of course we must ensure that those who have been made destitute through losing their jobs and their livelihoods will not be the new displaced. We will have to find a way to keep people in their homes, even if their ability to pay their rent or their mortgages has disappeared.

This will be vital. A family evicted is a family where the damage becomes immense, for them and for our wider society. We must support people in their homes, even if they have lost their own means.

A lot to do. A lot of support needs to be put in place beyond the virus crisis. We have to be more active than Alice. We look to the government to craft a Beveridge-scale solution to this crisis of homelessness, which threatens to become ever larger over the coming months.  

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

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