Twenty years ago, a magazine was launched in London to help the homeless help themselves; it is still going strong today, sadly, it needs to.
This morning, the publisher of The Big Issue appeared on the BBC Breakfast news programme. Native born Londoner A. John Bird knows a bit about homelessness, having been homeless as a young boy, spent some time in an orphanage, and then entering a well-documented downward spiral of crime then prison and then homelessness. And all over again.
This is a spiral from which many people never escape, especially if their problems are augmented by alcohol – a perennial problem for homeless men; drugs – both sexes; and prostitution – for women but also sometimes too for younger men.
Bird had a lucky escape from this, and in 1991 backed by Gordon Roddick – the husband of The Body Shop founder, the late Anita Roddick – he founded the paper that exists today. The Big Issue is an American import, ideologically; it is based on Street News, a paper sold on the streets of New York.
The Big Issue went weekly in 1993, and now has five editions throughout the UK. Its slogan is ‘a hand up, not a hand out’; an explanation of how it works with the homeless to help themselves can be found on the paper’s website, but its publisher told the Breakfast team that when he was on the streets begging he hated the people who didn’t give him money, and loathed those who did.
This ethos is all good and fine, praiseworthy in fact, but not all the homeless are either as resourceful or as resilient as Bird, and can or are capable of helping themselves, especially the chronic homeless: the rough sleepers who may also have a variety of mental health issues. To its credit, the government and especially local government, has done much in recent years to alleviate this problem, but A. John Bird would be the first to admit they have a long way to go.