The Big Issue: The first ten years on the streets
As The Big Issue marks its 10th anniversary, Mark Steel talks to John Bird, the magazine's founder, who, though still angry, has at least detected less callousness toward the homeless
Monday 10 September 2001
As a rule, you can tell the ethics of a society or a movement from its attitude towards the homeless. Henry VIII once passed a law sanctioning "whipping and imprisonment for sturdy vagabonds. They are to be tied to the cart-tail and whipped until the blood streams from their bodies, then to swear an oath to put themselves to labour". Then he probably went on Radio 4 to announce: "Look. The cart-tail-to-work scheme offereth the best opportunity for a generation to the sturdy vagabond, but look, we haveth to make tough choices."
In The Rights of Man, Tom Paine's proposal for the homeless was that public money should provide "two or more buildings, capable of containing at least 6,000 persons". Whereas now, the buildings would have to be tied to a sponsorship scheme and would end up as Special Brew Towers.
At the start of the last century, the American Labour movement organised mass demonstrations to protect hobos, helping them to occupy churches for shelter. In relatively stable post-war Britain, tramps were rare and assumed to be almost philosophical, like the old boys in Waiting for Godot.
Then, in the affluent 1980s, a new breed of homelessness began to flourish. Beggars became young, with spiky hair, and in these enterprising times they weren't afraid to abandon old working practices, breaking away from park benches and venturing into shop doorways. In the spirit of the age, some moved out of the centres of cities, and branches of begging were set up in almost every small town. Margaret Thatcher must have been proud of them, and probably expected them to relocate again, to an out-of-town warehouse near the M25 called Kingdom of Polystyrene Cups.
Like anyone else in those days, when the Prime Minister had declared that there was no such thing as society, the homeless were deemed to be a problem solely for the homeless. Defenders of the Eighties ethos would reply to the charge that these shivering wretches were a result of this creed by claiming that beggars were "making a fortune". The more emaciated a figure clutching a blanket appeared, the more the Thatcherite was likely to say: "Don't feel sorry for him: I've heard he's fifth in line to the throne."
Perhaps it was just coincidence, but as the greedy Eighties were replaced by the caring Nineties, The Big Issue was invented. The homeless would sell the magazine on the street and keep a percentage of the price, so as well as earning a few quid, the process of selling the magazine would raise the vendor's self-esteem.
John Bird, the founder, had seen homelessness at first hand, when as a child, his family was evicted for falling behind with the rent. He was placed in a Catholic orphanage, from where he took to petty thieving, so it was always obvious to him that there was more to homelessness than an unexplained epidemic of people deciding that they just can't be bothered.
This week, on the 10th anniversary of the first Big Issue, he was quoting a new survey that reveals that 20 per cent of the homeless admit to having been abused as children. Which may provide an answer to one question of those who remain unsympathetic to the young homeless, when they ask: "Why can't they go and live with their families?" Though even then, they'd probably say: "Well, you might get abused by an uncle but at least you'll keep warm. And you won't be a burden on the state, which is the main thing, surely."
The survey also reveals that one-third of the homeless are ex-convicts, of whom only 13 per cent received any resettlement advice when they left prison. More starkly, a glance at any specific case reveals how the route to the shop doorway can be frighteningly unremarkable. The 10th anniversary issue contains a number of stories, such as that of Krissy Crampfie, who says: "I was running a sound system for events at the age of 15. When I was 16, we were in London and I split from the group. I had no money and I was already using drugs." Or Charles Thompson of Newcastle, who was "kicked out of home for taking drugs, just after finishing GCSEs". Hard but fair, I suppose. When government policies such as "care in the community" and the removal of social-security benefits to teenagers are combined with stories such as those, a plausible reason for the homelessness boom becomes apparent.
Which leads to one of the great achievements of The Big Issue, beyond the obvious financial help it provides, which has been to humanise the homeless. Big Issue sellers become people with names and personalities and histories rather than anonymous figures that you stride past as quickly as possible. The vendors have been aided in this process by the nature of the magazine. As John Bird says: "We're duty-bound to create a magazine that homeless people can sell." His previous attempt to sell papers on street corners, as a member of the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League, contained no such concessions to populism. But The Big Issue's articles on music, art, politics and issues pertinent to the homeless have made it a product that sells in its own right and isn't just bought out of sympathy, consistently selling between 300,000 and 400,000 copies a week.
As such, while it strives never to be worthy, it remains one of the finest antidotes to modern magazine culture. Not once, as far as I know, has it tried to boost sales by promising secrets of soap stars, or boasting a display of "Britain's brightest begging babes" on the cover. Nor does it take the sanctimonious route, which it could easily lock itself into, by posing as a charity for helpless victims, or seeking association with people such as Noel Edmonds.
For John Bird retains an impressive and realistic attitude towards the problem that his magazine attempts to redress. Rather than look down on those homeless people who prefer to stick with the traditional polystyrene cup, he says: "There should be no distinction between the working poor and the non-working poor. Some of them just don't feel that selling The Big Issue is for them. If you can, you should put something in their cups as well, as they're still operating a charity; it's just a one-man charity. And unlike the big charities, at least you know that none of the money goes on bureaucracy and you can be confident about where it is going."
That is splendidly refreshing when compared to the smug: "There's no point giving to beggars, as they only spend it on drink." As if someone huddled by the sliding doors of Dixons, living off the discarded bony bits of Chinese takeaways, is going to save up their begging money to buy a set of kitchenware from John Lewis.
Similarly, Bird is no fan of the campaign from the Rough Sleepers Unit, which has centred on adverts displaying a beggar with a cup, on which is written: "If you really want to help, ring this number". How New Labour. Not the outright contempt of Thatcher, but a caring reason for not giving money to the poorest people in the country. Give them nothing, then they'll realise they have to get themselves together and they'll end up on the board of Microsoft. The campaign, incidentally, raised £10,000, which would be something if it hadn't cost £240,000 in the first place. Which may be why Bird summarises it as "a crazy campaign, a pile of crap". Though it fits in with Jack Straw's approval of the police commissioner who promised to "sweep the homeless off the streets".
The rest of the population seems to be moving away from callous attitudes to the homeless, which is possibly why such goodwill is retained for The Big Issue and its vendors. It may also be why, whenever that announcement is made on the Tube not to give to beggars, you see people defiantly fumbling in their pocket and looking for a beggar to give some change to. As John Bird says: "When I hear that announcement, I want to make my own: 'Don't make the trains late; don't make the escalators busted; don't give us a crap service.' " If you can stay that angry and determined, you can make a difference.
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