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    Big Issue seller in the street near Charing Cross in central London

    The Big Issue at 25: Co-Founder of UK's Homeless Magazine Tells All to Sputnik

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    September 2016 marks 25 years since The Big Issue, a magazine sold by homeless people was printed and distributed on Britain's streets.

    John Bird, its founder and editor in chief who launched The Big Issue in 1991, is now Lord Bird of Notting Hill, a crossbencher who sits in the House of Lords in Westminster.

    Lord Bird, who once slept rough and spent time in prison, speaks with authority and experience about homelessness in Britain. He told Sputnik, quite simply, what it's like for the magazine to turn 25.

    "The advantage of The Big Issue is that we've been around for 25 years."

    ​"Most homeless organizations are made up of people who have worked there for around five years; maybe ten, so the homelessness they encounter is very awful — it's the first time they've experienced it. But very few have been around for many decades," Lord Bird told Sputnik.

    Lord Bird admits that the situation a quarter of a century ago "was appalling compared to the homeless situation today, which is getting worse."

    "But it's not like 1991 when there were thousands of people sleeping rough in London," Lord Bird said.


    According to homeless charity, Crisis, statistics compiled by the British government revealed that 3,569 people slept rough at any one night, across England. This is more than double the number counted in 2010.

    Bird, who now sits in the House of Lords, told Sputnik that the British government "doesn't need another policy or another letter-head, or people standing around in the West End with their bourgeois idealism."

    "That's all wishful thinking," he said.

    According to reports from local agencies working with the homeless, 8,096 people slept rough in London in 2015 to 2016 — more than double the figure of 3,673 in 2009 to 2010.

    "It's all just a 'stop-gap'. Individuals do a bit, businesses do a bit, but there is no system or journey to assist a person out of poverty and homelessness which is a revolving door scenario," Lord Bird told Sputnik.

    "Britain has never created a system for absorbing broken people and their children. There is no system set up — like the educational system seeing people through the route of examinations. We don't have the same staircase out of poverty."

    ​'String, Spit and Paper'

    "People just fall for the publicity," Lord Bird said.

    The "No Second Night Out" campaign only applies to homeless people in the right place at the right time and whether or not a charity picks you up and you can fill in a form and prove you are homeless.

    "It's all just emergency measures and a 'stop-gap' approach. It's all string, spit and a bit of paper," he added.

    Lord Bird left London for Bristol to hide from the police in the 1970s. It was during this decade and into the 80s that the number of people who became homeless grew "reaching a crescendo in the 90s," he said

    "But instead of applying any analysis to the problem or engaging with it, it was always, 'let's do this, or let's do that, let's change the law', but this never clears poverty off our streets.

    "I'm in the House of Lords to dismantle poverty because I think the political parties and the political will of this country is too short-term and too small minded. There is never a grand-central plan or a decision to stop allowing our communities to fall to pieces."

    Hidden Homelessness 

    The majority of homeless people in England who are single and don't have any children are not entitled to housing.

    Many end up surviving hidden from sight of the authorities. Some people stay in hostels, but there are only 38,500 spaces available in England, leaving those with nowhere to go and little choice but to stay in squats, bed and breakfast accommodation or in so-called concealed housing — in rooms or on floors and sofas belonging to friend and family.

    Matthew, who has been homeless for 18 months, sells The Big Issue outside Russell Square tube station in Bloomsbury, London.

    "I find more people come up to me when you're doing this, people aren't so scared of you when you're selling a Big Issue," Matthew told Sputnik.

    "I'm in a hostel and I can't get a job, so selling this helps me out a hell of a lot. It keeps me going every day; if I don't do it I'm a bit bored. I'd like to hopefully get myself a job and a flat — but that will probably take a year," Matthew said.

    'The Dumbest Thing Ever'

    But back to The Big Issue's quarter of a century milestone, Lord Bird admits that he thinks the whole idea behind it is "dumb."

    "It's the dumbest, most stupid thing ever, based on my own life."

    "Basically, if you have people in poverty and you don't give them the opportunity to make legal money themselves, they're going to rob or sell their bodies or break into cars. It's dumb to try and decriminalize the homeless — but what The Big Issue does is challenge why people are on the street."

    ​"It's basically saying, 'you're using terrible things to destroy yourself, so instead of you using other people to destroy yourself, we'll give you the means to do it,' " Lord Bird explained. "Then you put people in a position to be able to dismantle the problems in their own life.

    "Then at the next stage, we're in the position to help them move on and get detoxed and try and stop them from destroying their community."

    ​Bird explains that the Big Issue can't help everyone, "but we help between 10 and 30 percent of the population who fall into that category who go on to sorting out their lives."

    "We work with around 2,000 people a year, if we help just two, The Big Issue is relevant."


    According to Lord Bird, it's the bottom 30 percent of society who has been failed by the education system that the government should be focusing their attention on.

    "They're the ones who fill up the mental health hospitals, accident and emergency departments and prisons. They're the ones who self-medicate on cheap strong lager and drugs, because they know there's something wrong and they can't stand reality."

    "We need an intellectual climate to drive poverty out, we need a cradle to the grave philosophy to dismantle poverty but we haven't moved on intellectually from the 12th century," Lord Bird told Sputnik.

    In conversation with Sputnik on The Big Issue's 25th anniversary this year, Lord Bird says the organization could do more — if it had the resources and the backing of an intellectual-thinking government.

    "I have told the government this — and they ask me if I want more sugar in my tea."

    But, at the end of the day, the biggest issue for Lord Bird is the "criminal waste" of billions of pounds use for "trying to get people out of poverty and homelessness, when we still haven't solved that problem yet."


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    homelessness, streets, alcohol, magazine, employment, homeless, charity, society, government, poverty, drugs, The Big Issue, House of Lords, John Bird, Bristol, Great Britain, United Kingdom, London
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