Big Issue Vendor

Simpler times, but 30 years ago The Big Issue’s goal was the same

We are celebrating our arrival at a time when mass Covid-created homelessness could be on the cards, writes Big Issue founder John Bird.
Big issues remain. John Bird and Phil Ryan were helping the homeless in 1991. The fight continues. Image: The BIg Issue

This 30th year is turning out to be a rock ’n’ roll year. Back when we started The Big Issue life moved slower. Political life by comparison to today was old-fashioned and nearly quaint. I was an almost fashionable 45-year-old with DMs and rather ragged, washed-out denim. And some silly little tops, slogan free. It was difficult to see our way forward because this was all new stuff; this intervening in street homelessness.

Phil [Ryan, pictured above] and I, the first person I took on, were spending more time in the West End, for that is where the thousands of homeless people were domiciled on the streets.

Domiciled was obviously a silly word to use. As domicile suggests a place to live. The tired, bleary-eyed world of rough sleeping was sucking the life out of very young people. Making them desperate to get their hands on the means for food.

And often being converted to stimulants of the most appealing but appalling kind.

We have to fight against mass homelessness hitting us when the government decides all this emergency spending is too much to pass on to another generation

Most of the people we met had the accents of Scotland and the North. The displaced of the United Kingdom were bedding down and begging among some signs of plenty. But it was not a good world.

I do inwardly wish that we were in simpler times. Now of course we are being kicked about by Covid-created poverty. Now we have mass evictions to fight against. We have to fight against mass homelessness hitting us when the government decides all this emergency spending is too much to pass on to another generation.

Of course you can inform government that paying people’s rent or mortgage, giving them social security until they get out of the emergency, is cheaper than letting people slip into the treacle of homelessness: the mind-damaging effects can take generations to work out.

Now I’m not a ripped denim, DM-wearing street orator and encourager to join the The Big Issue army of vendors of an about-to-be-launched street paper. Now I have a Bill passing through Parliament to make homelessness and poverty a thing of the past. A grown-up new form of government that asks questions of long-term effects that policy wonks are imposing upon us. Only then to see a few years down the line how policy and legislation can cripple the future big time. For the laws of unintended consequence bite us in the bum.

Many of the people we found on the streets in ’91 were there because of the results of three big decisions made in the 1980s. One was to close down the basic industries of coal, steel and heavy engineering, and greatly reduce ship building. A paucity of work was invented to mop up these formerly prosperous villages and towns of the North and in Scotland. There was a broken connection in many of the former well connected-through-work communities. People needed work but they were not to get it.

This put big pressures on families and former working people. Such devastation that we still see now. Such seismic changes that were ill-prepared, leaving over a million dependent on social security.

The next big change was the closing down of mental institutions and their replacements. Often horrible places to visit, I visited a few, yet the decanting of the Victorian asylums led to big street problems. I was not the only one to say that closing our inadequate mental health system would lead to a filling up of the streets with the mentally ill, and the filling up of prisons with the same.

That was possibly the most frightening part of the supposed modernising of Great Britain by Margaret Thatcher’s government. Modernising seemed to have a large element of unpreparedness to it. Modern in other words seemed to be another word for “emptying”.

The other thing that brought hundreds and hundreds of young people into the streets of London was a change in the social security system. If you came from one of the communities blighted by unemployment and you were on social security then when your children came of working age they also got social security. This was suddenly changed. From about ’87 onward the 16-year-old school-leaver had to make do with mum and dad’s unemployment support. Arguments and trouble descended on the young, and many ran away.

These three pieces of social change were the driving force behind the thousands bedding down in London’s West End and other magnet cities.

So The Big Issue came along to help get people out of trouble. To help make a legal amount of money so they did not have to resort to wrongdoing.

Simple times but riven with the unintended consequences of government policy. I don’t think Thatcher ever intended to have a vast amount of people on benefit when she left office. She just wanted to get rid of Victorianism, Victorian-created industries and asylums. And of course get young people off their arses, as she apparently had done all her life.

Now we are celebrating our arrival at a time when mass Covid-created homelessness could be on the cards. The halting of eviction orders is stopping. The courts are being prepared for a groundswell of landlords who have had no income trying to repossess their properties to rent to those that can afford to pay.

It’s a fight we cannot avoid.

John Bird is the founder of The Big Issue