Opinion

Our government’s safety nets for people facing homelessness are riddled with holes

For the government, intervening once people are actually homeless is completely ridiculous, argues Big Issue founder John Bird.

John Bird has come up with a new bike light system. It's ridiculous, like the government intervening to help a person when they've already become homeless. Illustration: Getty

Over the last few days I have invented two new things. One is a new lighting system for bikes. The other is a new government minister.

My bike light system is brilliant. I am a cyclist and am always aware of the dangers of cycling.

So my new foolproof system, I believe, should be adopted by all. It’s unique and original. Say, for instance, you are driving a car and ahead of you is a cyclist, but it’s dark and they have no lights. You bang into them and then all of a sudden the bike bursts into a blaze of lights! Therefore the lights only illuminate when there is a collision.

I don’t think anyone has invented that kind of bike light before. I intend to patent it and start producing it ASAP.

My ministry is even more ingenious. I was speaking in parliament last week and after my critique of current problems around keeping people in their homes to stop mass homelessness, the minister replied with a whole list of support available to people in need.

Then the idea occurred to me: what about a ministry for people who fall through the safety net? If, in spite of the government support programme, you fall through the safety net, this new ministry would make sure you didn’t get overlooked.

I proposed this ministry and proposed myself as its first minister. I have yet to hear if it will be adopted by the government.

A department of government that is necessary because we have so many examples of people falling through the gaps that exist in the safety net.

Of course, both of my ideas are ridiculous. Imagine a ministry that in some ways underlines the charge that government has a safety net that often doesn’t work. That fails in its ability to provide for the security of people in need.

The Big Issue is working to prevent thousands of people hit by the pandemic from falling into homelessness in the months ahead through the Stop Mass Homelessness campaign. Sign our petition and find out how you can take action now here.

You imagine what grief would be handed out by this minister to all other ministers, underlining their failure to provide. You would not be popular and you would find that denials would flow thick and fast.

And as for the bike lights: what lunatic would suggest that we develop a kind of bike light system that is only activated once the collision takes place. So a minister for filling the holes is going to win no prizes; nor a bike light system per the above.

Yet is there not a need to recognise that there are too many holes in our safety systems? That now we have people falling into homelessness because they have lost their ability to pay for their accommodation, in spite of government promises to use the safety net for them.

Where is the safety net? How can we prevent the half a million people who are behind in their rent or mortgage from being evicted? 

So we have a need for a minister that fills these holes, but we won’t get him/her.

With regard to my ingenious bike light system, you may laugh. But don’t we at the moment almost have that situation?

Where much of a government’s expenditure is spending money to cope with a problem that has already happened. Where prevention is too much for the Treasury to contemplate. Where the collision happens, and only then does the government money flow.

So for people slipping into eviction and then homelessness, intervening when they are actually homeless is a bit like my light system: completely ridiculous for the situation. Completely illogical. You need to keep people in their homes, pay off their arrears, support them when they are in the emergency and work to get them back into the job market. Forgive me my irony.

There is so much about an emergency-driven world that looks foolish. That looks as illogical as my lights for bikes. How do we train ourselves out of this? How do we garner the evidence to learn once and for all how to respond to true emergencies, and not just planned-for emergencies. Emergencies which are entirely preventable, because you respond before the problem is allowed to deteriorate into an emergency. Emergencies are often created because we do not respond when the problem is a small thing, before it becomes a big thing.

Of course, the big conference at COP26 is one hell of an emergency response that took years to build up because of a lack of responding earlier. In some ways emergencies can destroy us all, because we’ve left things too late.

Let’s hope that whatever comes out of COP26 isn’t just more of the same: leaving the emergency to another day, when it’s passed from the manageable to the catastrophic.

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

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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