‘Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have valuable skills,’ Big Issue founder John Bird told delegates in the day’s powerful final session
‘Get money. It doesn’t matter how you get it, or where you get it from,’ Bird urged delegates in the day’s rousing final presentation. ‘Tell people whatever they want to hear. Get money – then bring about social change,’
‘I saw [the Body Shop Foundation’s] Gordon Roddick on TV, saying how it was important not just to have a business but to put something back into the community, so I rang him up. He said, “Are you one of those people who crawl out of the woodwork when someone’s made a shedload of money?” I said, “Yes”.’
The two became friends, and one day in 1990 Roddick was walking down the street in New York when he was approached by a ‘huge bloke who said, “would you like to buy a copy of my street paper?” He explained how it worked – “I’m making money so I don’t have to go and steal.” Gordon thought this was brilliant.’
Roddick returned to the UK with the idea of launching a similar product in London, where at the time there were ‘about 10,000 people sleeping rough,’ said Bird. Many had become homeless through drink and drugs, or developed drink and drug problems while homeless.
The Body Shop Foundation decided to conduct a feasibility study, which involved getting in touch with the UK’s homeless organisations, of which there were ‘501 in London at that time,’ he said.
‘There is no one in the world who can be divided between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor,’ Bird told delegates. ‘But these homeless organisations were doing that. They all said, “Why would you give homeless people the means of making their own money?” So the Body Shop went on to do something else.’
At the time Bird was running a print business, which was struggling financially, he told the conference. ‘So Gordon said to me, “Why don’t you do this street paper? You don’t cry over the poor.” If you’re going to get real about poverty, then get real and get it in your nostrils.’
Bird’s idea of a feasibility study was different to Roddick’s, he explained. ‘I went out and just talked to the police and people on the street. Most of them just told me to piss off, but some of them said, “Anything’s better than begging, stealing, breaking into cars or selling my arse”. And the police got behind me 100 per cent, because I would get to the people who were feeding their habits by coming into the West End and committing crime.’
The magazine launched in 1991, but immediately ran into a ‘huge problem’, he told delegates. ‘When we said to homeless people that they’d have to buy the paper to sell it they went nuts. They said, “But we’re homeless, we’ve always been given stuff for nothing”. I said, “That’s why you’re still homeless. It’s a way of walling you off, keeping you helpless, keeping you a child.”’
He then decided to approach some of the biggest and most intimidating rough sleepers and ‘buy them off’, he explained. ‘So they became our police force, and it really took off. Everyone got involved – it was an absolute change. A hand up, not a hand out – not a moralistic telling off of people.’
And that ethos extended to those who got into real trouble, he said. One of the magazine’s best vendors relapsed and robbed the safe from a Big Issue office to buy drugs, but was given his job back after leaving prison. ‘What someone needs when they fall down is help.’
Bird was to make his maiden speech in the House of Lords the following day, he told the conference. ‘I’m there to do our work, about how do we keep communities together, help people when they fall down, and turn social security into social opportunity, which is what it was intended for in the first place. It was about giving people succour and help, but all that changed under Thatcher.
‘The house I came from was hard working people who fell into poverty,’ he continued, adding that he’d once told a service user meeting, ‘I’m always meeting people who define themselves by the failures of others – every last one of us has to stop and put effort into our own lives.’ The way he’d survived homelessness and prison himself – ‘and being beaten shitless by the police and my father’ – had been to constantly pick himself up and have self-esteem, he stated.
He’d learned to read in a young offenders’ institute, he said. ‘I was educated by the prison system, doing a “short, sharp shock” at Oxford Detention Centre. Now young people go in bad and come out worse. I’m very, very hard on poverty – I hate to see poor people treated almost as if they’re another species. And the way the government, the media, the public, even some charities, talk about the poor is as if they are another species.’
There were also too many impediments to getting people out of poverty, he warned. ‘We need to give users, ex-users and others the chance to develop themselves as individuals. We have to have an intellectual revolution.’
Around ten years ago he’d had the idea to start a finance business, he said. It began as Social Brokers before becoming Big Issue Invest, and had so far invested money from high net worth individuals into 320 social enterprises. ‘I call it “preventing the next generation of Big Issue sellers”,’ he explained.
Existing alongside this was his concept of PECC, which stood for Prevention, Emergency, Coping and Cure, he told the conference. ‘Ninety per cent of all social money invested in the world goes in when the shit has already hit the fan and you need to stabilise the situation – not into prevention, or cure.’
‘I’m not an idealist,’ he stated. ‘I’m sure I’m going to be thrown out of the House of Lords. What we really need to do is understand people, give them help and encouragement and create social justice for those who fall on hard times and there’s no one there for them.
‘There are transferable skills you learn as a homeless person – use them. We are all full of talent and skill. The skills you use to score and beg – use them. You learn skills and abilities – don’t kid yourself that you haven’t picked up enormous skills when you’ve been down that you can use on the way up. All you need is a hand up, not a hand out.’