Twenty-five years ago we struggled, and for many years after, with the enormity of our task. Starting on the double yellow lines of the West End of London, kindly ignored by friendly coppers and traffic wardens, we began.
To say that we knew precisely what we were doing was our first big whopper. That knowing what you are doing only comes from doing. And quickly we learned that we loved and loathed our work because it was so madly engaging and intense.
“John Bird, you scumbag, you’re exploiting us” was said at one of the memorable confrontations with a group of distraught vendors rough-sleeping in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. “You’re charging us for this paper when homeless people have always been given things free.” My reply, “Well, maybe that’s one of the reasons you are still homeless” was greeted with derision of a loud declamatory kind.
At times it got strained but we did our best to play honest broker in this appalling reality
Out of this confrontation and other confrontations with angered and left-behind and patronised homeless people we built a system of goodwill. At times it got strained but we did our best to play honest broker in this appalling reality where thousands had faced decades of slaps, kicks, punches and pats on the back; so to speak.
An amazing array of contradictory encouragements and rejections had added to homeless distress.
What we brought into the argument was the chance to make honest money, and the chance to begin to control your life; if falling had kept you down.
From the double yellow lines we expanded to Europe, Scotland, Russia, the North of England rapidly. We built an international network wherever the blight of homelessness occurred. We cut our teeth on homelessness locally and universalised this system of giving the homeless “a hand up not a handout”.
Twenty-five years is a frigging long time to try and keep up the passion, and at times we sagged, got lost, and titivated rather than innovated. But eventually I believe we turned into something that smacked of usefulness. I think we have got somewhere very special.
It would be impossible if it were not for the thousands of homeless people who took us on this forced march of knowledge-gathering. This continuous assault course, demonstrating how much damage had been done to them that they needed our aid in alleviating; or managing. Unfortunately sometimes the damage of their plight was so deep it could be terminal.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
I wonder where Ray, for instance, is now? Caught in a world of lies, cheats, beatings, neglect and yet rising to aid not just himself but others. Or Bungalow Bill, who the last time I saw him was dressed as a large tomato raising money for a children’s hospital charity. Alas one of the downs of our work has been to see people go when they feel they need us not. Goodbyes often left unsaid.
It’s a wonder of a world that seems to enrich our work and understanding; and it’s with this feeling we face the future.
Recently I have been working in the House of Lords on issues of literacy and the around 30 per cent of our children who pass through school and come out ill-prepared for life. This is one area that we could put useful energies into because many of the people we work with have not done well at school.
Cutting off homelessness and social neglect and need, at source, is where I want to take our work. To look upon our 25 years as a vast, at times sharp, learning curve that leads us to now passionately want to struggle to dismantle poverty. Not to simply bleat about how poor poor people are; but to find the mechanisms for breaking the machines that create poverty. To dismantle poverty.
Our Let’s Dismantle Poverty conference next March will rally many bodies and individuals who want to help us to do that. And to begin what I believe is the greatest of all challenges: to create a SCIENCE OF NEW GOVERNMENT!
For that is what I went into the House of Lords to do: to stop government policy creating poverty; or policy that is not preventing poverty happening in the first instance.
Our Let’s Dismantle Poverty conference next March will rally many bodies and individuals who want to help us to do that
For all of our efforts outside of government we need to change many of the dumb practices that have grown up over the years that stop people dismantling poverty in their own lives. That impede the poor.
Literacy is one of the most useful fights we can enter. But planning new ways of spending our money on dismantling poverty – our tax money – is a true David versus the big fella kind of struggle.
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Last week, John Bird offered parliament a stark warning – if the government kept closing libraries and failed to tackle growing illiteracy in Britain they would have to build more prisons and homeless hostels. Bird was speaking during a Lords debate on the crisis facing public libraries and independent bookshops, and the need to work for literacy in the UK. Watch the speech in full below.