John Bird: We can survive this. But only with your help

Please buy online. Please keep with us. And please send us your stories about what’s going on in your community

Twenty-nine years is a long time to hold on to an idea that values homeless people as a sum of more than their destitution. Back in 1991 there was a very strong feeling against rough sleepers as socially disruptive. So for 29 years we have gathered ourselves every week to argue and help prove that the homeless were us, without the comfort of permanent homes.

Now 29 years later, having known and met and worked with thousands and thousands of homeless people, The Big Issue is on a knife edge.

Hundreds of millions of transactions between the homeless and the general public are likely to be undermined if we run out of people to buy the magazine. Obviously the vendors should not be on the street. And the public should not be on the street either. So the temporary death of the street could be the permanent death of The Big Issue.

No sales, no money.

Is there an answer? There is: get 60,000 people each week to buy the publication, either by subscribing or through the website zinio.com to get a digital version of the magazine. Very soon we will also have an app that you can download to get the magazine and more.

We are driven to do this. For every sale we make, at least half the money will go to vendors. We will distribute the money, going 50/50 with the homeless as we have done for decades.

Our incredibly powerful 29-year-long message, “A hand up not a handout”, will have to be suspended for the moment. Why? Because the vendors will not be able to vend, so we must still support them. It’s hard enough surviving but we will do all we can to make sure they get money to survive the viral attack.

These are not easy times for any of us. But it would be a crying shame if, after the crisis has lifted, homeless people didn’t have a means to earn an honest living.

Coincidentally I was available to start a street paper 29 years ago because of an earlier crisis. After the Gulf War in 1991, following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait the previous year, empty planes were flying across the Atlantic and much business slipped into crisis.

We hope you flock to us digitally. Our message in our new format will be positive

There was a glumness around. I was working for a publisher helping them with their catalogue printing, and their cheques were bouncing all over the place. Eating a meal one night with Gordon and Anita Roddick, Gordon returned to his favourite subject: a street paper for London and beyond. He had bought a street paper in New York and thought it was a good ‘crime prevention’ mechanism. But he couldn’t get anyone in the homeless field to get behind it. He asked me, as a loud ex-homeless, ex-offender. And because I was broke I took the chance. And the rest is history.

A decade later, on the very day of our 10th anniversary, 9/11 happened. What a kicking that gave us and everyone else. Deserted streets, equalling deserted pockets. We lost about 40 per cent of our street sales.

But all crises pale into insignificance beside this big one, the viral monster that will bring all of us into lockdown sooner or later.

We hope you flock to us digitally. Our message in our new format will be positive. It will be about supporting communities through this crisis. And it will be about the stories that resonate throughout our communities that struggle to look after the most needy.

Eighteen months ago in Northampton we had a conference called Social Echo. It was incredible and out of it has grown a group of people across the Midlands who want to link and stitch together the communities that are being exposed by the coronavirus.

The principal behind Social Echo is that you can work closely together to make the local community work to the benefit of all. That we can learn a lot from helping each other in this very simple way.

Feeding, providing, befriending, including: helping now so that we can grow through the crisis and come out the other end better than before.

Our most precious assets are the people we work with. That is the vendors of The Big Issue. But also it is the supporters of our vendors who buy The Big Issue. We are all in it together. We can help both our vendors and the body that helps them to help themselves.

Look at it another way: you would never talk about supporting patients in hospital without realising that their wellbeing is delivered through the NHS. So it is with The Big Issue. The biggest support we can give Big Issue vendors is for The Big Issue to live another 29 years; so that it can help those most desperate to get money and to cope; and then hopefully grow and develop.

On a day last week when it was getting blacker by the minute, I got a phone call from an old Big Issue vendor, back from 25 years ago. He is having health problems. He was wanting to sell The Big Issue again because his post-Big Issue occupation was no longer possible.

I couldn’t recommend going out and selling The Big Issue because there was there was no one to sell to. I couldn’t suggest, with his health problems, that he make himself more vulnerable.

We will do what we can. But without our regular income that’s not possible.

Please buy online. Please keep with us. And please send us your stories about what’s going on in your community.

Click here to find out how you can continue to help us support our vendors

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