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Opinion

John Bird: People living in poverty can be part of their own solution

There will always be people who need a hand up, but viewing them as problems and ignoring their talents is government's biggest mistake

John Bird, founder of The Big Issue

The train toilet was occupied. Unfortunately they had not locked the door. I was about to walk in on a confused user, unable to fathom the complexity of lights and locks, when a young man told me the true situation in the cabinet.

I thanked and waited, warning another who came up and who intended to take the available light as erroneously as I did; until forewarned.

How did the young man who had forewarned me of the chance of a social faux pas if I walked in on a busy woman get on to the question of organic Rice Krispies with me? By the time the cabinet was empty we had progressed on to his 180ft garden and his growing of virtually all of his own vegetables.

I was moved once again by the humanity of many people I meet. The people who help you and you may help. Is there a potential app for this?

Having used the facilities, noting once again that they had no water in the hand wash part, but fortunately only needing to rearrange my increasingly complicated hair, I carried on talking with the tattooed man.

His passion for organic vegetables was intense, and added to the realisation that nature was the business. Minutes later he got off the train to go to work as an assistant at a hospice. I sat in the seat he left and mused as I often do on the happenstances of life. On the fact that a potentially embarrasssing bit of small talk can blow you away. That this man was a rounded bloke and obviously like me was a talker to all and sundry.

I was moved once again by the humanity of many people I meet. The people who help you and you may help. Is there a potential app for this?

But I think I’m only an imitator. I’m copying an old man I knew as a young man who was the most open and kind-hearted fellow I ever met. Although he could have his bitter parts, he sailed through life recruiting people for an imaginary army of the garrulous, the thoughtful, the kindly. And I think I am simply aping his open, honest interest in people.

I was determined to do one thing when I got off the train. I got off at St James’s Park underground and went round to the barbers. I asked the female barber to remove all need to poodle around with my hair. I had tried to change my spots and ponce up my hair but now knew it was taking up too much time in my life. Previously I was an almost shaved-header.

They don’t involve the patient in the cure but see them as a recipient, a receptacle of help, not an active player in their redemption

Of course if I hadn’t had to poncify my hair I wouldn’t have met the man from the hospice who ate organic Rice Krispies and grew vegetables and like me – I imagined – was once a part of the problem and was now a part of the solution. A prodigal son, in other words.

Later that day I sat at a meeting with some MPs who drilled me about my desire to create an alliance to prevent poverty. What was most governments’ big mistake? I said not tapping into the skills and talents and abilities that often lay just below the surface of people’s need. That most programmes for replenishing the poor don’t see people but see problems.

They don’t involve the patient in the cure but see them as a recipient, a receptacle of help, not an active player in their redemption.

As I sat at the meeting, aware that I could concentrate on my thinking and not my hair – I exaggerate – I could not get the gardening hospice man out of my mind.

How do we get people out of poverty? Out of need? How do we prevent poverty happening in the first instance?

Isn’t there something around government, which should be an engine for spreading out fortune so it hits all parts? When I drew the MPs a little department map of how the failing 37% of children at school radiates out to harm the NHS, fill our prisons, clog up our street doorways, and produce our working poor, they fell silent.

There’s big work to be done in the world, but the first problem is getting the movers and shakers to realise that only a revolution in government delivery in all sectors will solve poverty.

My haircut succeeded. It was cut down by Scotland Yard which is being torn to pieces, sold for luxury flats for a suggested £350m, with the police scattered out over London. I think it’s a part of a cost-cutting. But is it efficient?

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