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The Big Issue at 30: How has homelessness changed since our first edition?

When we launched, Thatcherism had seen rough sleeping become an acute problem. Thirty years later, have things got better or worse? Adrian Lobb speaks to Nick Hardwick, who wrote the magazine’s first ever cover story.

“Why don’t the homeless just go home?”

That was the provocative strapline on the front cover of the first edition of The Big Issue back in September 1991. We have continued to provoke and to question ever since.

But what of that first cover feature – why was it written? And what were the circumstances that prompted both the headline and the magazine itself?

The story was written by Nick Hardwick, who was the director of homelessness charity Centrepoint – then a fledgling night shelter, now one of the biggest and most vital charities supporting people experiencing homelessness.

Three decades on, we sent Hardwick his article to find out what he made of the words he wrote to bring attention to the homelessness crisis, and what he feels has changed in the years since.

The First Big Issue Cover from September 1991
The First Big Issue Cover from September 1991

“What struck me was how bad things were then,” he says. “In particular, I talked a lot about children. There were children on the streets sleeping rough and you don’t get that to the same extent now.

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“That’s improved, particularly because of some of the work Centrepoint did about young people leaving care. Some of what I wrote about young people running away from abuse was not widely understood at the time.

“So on the one hand, things have changed, and to some degree for the better. But on the other hand, you walk around central London and still have people sleeping rough in one of the richest cities in the world. So you could also argue that not much has changed either.”

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Hardwick sets the scene of London in 1991. Ostensibly, after the boom years of the 1980s, the capital appeared to be a city of huge riches.

The towering business district of Canary Wharf emerged from the regenerated West India Docks in 1991, but the Thatcher era had also seen a widening wealth gap. For every yuppie carrying an oversized mobile phone, there was someone else struggling to keep a roof over their head.

By 1991, the homelessness crisis in London was impossible to ignore.

“People forget this, but where the IMAX cinema is at the underpass near Waterloo was an open space called the Bullring – and there were about 300 people sleeping there,” says Hardwick, recalling a space also referred to as Cardboard City.

“In terms of the places people slept, there was a hierarchy. And the Bullring was bottom of the pile. You had people with a lot of mental health problems, there was a lot of drug dealing, a lot of violence.

Nick Hardwick In The Dormitory At Centre Point In Soho Where He Runs A Shelter For The Homeless
Nick Hardwick In The Dormitory At Centre Point In Soho Where He Runs A Shelter For The Homeless. Photo: ANL/Shutterstock

“People would light fires and burn plastic, so you would have this smoke and flickering flames, and some people were ill and screaming and wailing. It was like Dante’s vision of hell.

“Lincoln’s Inn Fields was where a lot of ex-military people slept, so that tended to be more ordered. People there would control it, so if you were troublesome, you’d get chased out. But because the numbers got so big, the military bit got lost and it got overwhelmed.

“And you used to see a lot of young people sleeping on the busy streets in the West End, up Shaftesbury Avenue, down The Strand, around Covent Garden. You would have big sites with big numbers of people sleeping out.”

A symbol of cruelty

Homelessness, particularly in London, had become a big and highly visible issue by 1991. Hardwick recalls the politics of the time, and an infamous comment by Conservative Housing Minister George Young that attracted fury.

When the politician – now Baron Young of Cookham – described London’s homeless population as “the people you step over when you come out of the opera” he was, according to Hardwick, trying to highlight the harmful attitudes of a large proportion of wealthy people. However, the comment chimed so closely with many people’s perceptions of the heartlessness of the government that the words became a symbol of cruelty.

“This was the end of the Thatcher era,” recalls Hardwick. “George Young was actually trying to criticise those attitudes but there was a sort of truth in it – people who hadn’t been aware of the problem suddenly became more aware of it because they saw it everywhere. It absolutely was a political issue.”

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Then, at least, charities felt able to criticise government policies. They were able to use their expertise to highlight causes of, and possible solutions to, the homelessness crisis. That option is no longer easy for charities as the 2014 Lobbying Act and gagging clauses inserted into government contracts have silenced vital dissenting expert voices.

“That’s why The Big Issue is very important,” says Hardwick. “It has been an unconstrained voice because of the way it’s set up and funded. It gives homeless people a voice in a way they wouldn’t otherwise get.”

In 1991, Hardwick was scandalised by the numbers of young people sleeping rough. Without a job, he wrote, people needed income from the social security system. However, support for most 16 and 17-year-olds had been deliberately cut and those with no fixed address were unable to get on youth training schemes.

“As a result,” he wrote, “many of the 16 and 17-year-olds on the streets literally have no legal source of income at all.” For those between the ages of 18 and 24, the support was also nowhere near enough to live on.

Looking back, Hardwick says: “Young people had their benefits cut on the basis that they ought to be going home to Mother. That was the idea – that if you made life more difficult for them, they would come to their senses and go home.

“The key factor I was arguing was that most young people we were seeing didn’t have a safe place they could return to. So if you made life more difficult for them, they just had to resort to increasingly desperate measures on the streets.

“So young people grouped together in public places because it was safer. If you went down The Strand, you would see young people and children sleeping in pretty much every doorway.”

‘We were angry’

Many of these young people, in Hardwick’s experience, were fleeing abuse. “We were saying back in 1991 that young people were coming to Centrepoint because they had been sexually abused in children’s homes. And what was done about that? Eff all, frankly. It is outrageous.

“The correct reaction to it – and I can feel it again now – was to be angry. And we were. It’s wrong to let the bureaucratic language you need to resolve the crisis strip away the emotional response you should have to it. What was happening and what’s happening to some people now is an outrage.”

A decade prior to Hardwick’s story Employment Secretary Norman Tebbit had implied that the country’s four million unemployed people get on their bikes and look for work. Hardwick noted that many had done so – heading to London in search of work only to find that without a place to live it was almost impossible to get a job, and without a job it was tough to find a place to live.

“I’m struck by how there’s a lot more foreign nationals on the streets now than in those days. But in a sense the issues are the same,” says Hardwick, who was chief executive of the Refugee Council from 1995 to 2003.

‘What The Big Issue shows by its very existence is that people aren’t hopeless’

“A big proportion of the people we saw had come over from Ireland or down from Scotland after losing their home or job.

“That’s not much different from somebody losing their home in Poland or Romania then coming to London to look for work and make a new start.

“The human factors are the same. And again, if you deny people benefits – whether they’re children you think ought to be going back home or migrants you think ought to be going back home – and if they haven’t got a safe home to go back to that doesn’t work. What happens is you make them have to do increasingly desperate things to survive.

“Some lessons that were apparent then are still apparent.”

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Delayed benefits

In 1991, Hardwick saw a lot of people becoming homeless due to delays in their social security payments. Income support, he wrote, was paid two weeks in arrears, meaning “for the first two weeks of their claim – perhaps the first two weeks in which they are homeless – they will have no income at all”.

It is hard not to draw a parallel with the devastating five-week delay in universal credit payments.

And the number of people who become homeless after leaving prison remains a big issue to this day.

“It’s crazy,” says Hardwick, who was HM chief inspector of prisons from 2010 to 2016 and chair of the Parole Board from 2016 to 2018. “If you want to stop people reoffending the one thing we know does work is to give them a home.”

Hardwick has followed the ups and downs of the fight to eradicate poverty and homelessness over the 30 years of The Big Issue’s existence. And there is frustration that advances that have been made have fallen back since the change of government in 2010.

“What’s happening is very frustrating,” he says. “This was a big, symbolic issue at the end of the Thatcher era. Then John Major came in and appointed George Young as a housing minister – I worked for him for a bit and there was a sort of initiative on rough sleeping.

George Young, Tory housing minister in 1991
George Young, Tory housing minister in 1991. Credit: Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

“Then the Blair government set up a Rough Sleepers Initiative and, to give credit where credit is due, it did significantly reduce the numbers of people sleeping on the streets. You simply didn’t see the numbers on the streets you see today.”

Within two years of setting up the Rough Sleepers Unit in 1999, rough sleeping was reduced by two-thirds. By 2010, street homelessness was at its lowest level on record. But there followed a rise of 169 per cent in the years 2010-2018.

This coincided with a period of spiralling housing costs and stagnating wages – pricing more people out of suitable housing and pushing many into precarious positions.

“Housing costs have got even more disproportionate, particularly in London,” argues Hardwick. “There is a very dangerous moment approaching. People need to be shouting about it from the rooftops. Or from the pages of The Big Issue.”

But Hardwick, even in 1991, saw hope. He saw solutions. He still does. And he still sees reasons to be optimistic, especially in the people experiencing homelessness themselves.

“We write homeless people off too much,” he says. “What The Big Issue shows by its very existence is that people aren’t hopeless. And if you give them even a little bit of help, then they will often rebuild their own lives for themselves.

‘The Big Issue gives homeless people a voice in a way they wouldn’t otherwise get’

“If we treat them as hopeless cases that does people a disservice. It is about trying to give them some dignity back, which is one of the things The Big Issue does which was important when it started.

“People forget how innovative it was. Its success indicates the truth of that concept.”

Over the past 30 years, the Housing First concept has also grown in popularity.

After it achieved notable results in Finland, politicians in this country are now finally trialing it, testing it, slowly, slowly. Pilot schemes have taken place in Glasgow in 2010, more recently in the West Midlands, Liverpool and Manchester plus a major expansion in Scotland since 2018. But the speed of change is not fast enough for many experts, Hardwick included.

“Ideas like Housing First are not new,” he says. “Of course to break the cycle you need to provide people with accommodation, with housing first. That is absolutely clear.” And it has been clear, he suggests, since before he wrote for our first edition.

“There’s a cost to keeping people homeless that in the end has to be paid. If people are homeless, you’re going to get crime, you’re going to get disorder, there will be healthcare costs. But the money required to resolve it is not that significant.”

Hardwick retains hope that the situation can and will improve. The results achieved by previous governments. and the temporary housing of rough sleepers during the pandemic via the Everyone In campaign highlight what is possible with the political will. We cannot allow things to go back to business as usual.

“We’ve shown you can drastically reduce the numbers of homeless people. It has been done,” says Hardwick. “So this isn’t something inevitable. The numbers of homeless people we see and the numbers of people begging are a result of policy decisions that have been made, rather than some innate characteristic of human nature.

“This isn’t about the individual. Why the numbers of homeless people go up and down is not because suddenly more people have become, quote unquote, inadequate. It’s because of the way that government policies have changed.”

A glimmer of hope

Looking at the situation today, Hardwick again sees parallels with 1991. “I wonder whether there is that slight sense that there was back in 1991,” he says. “There’s a glimmer of hope that maybe the situation has got so bad that the government’s coming to the view that something’s got to be done about it.

“At the time it felt like we had our backs against the wall. Again, probably for people working in the homelessness sector now it feels like they’ve got their backs against the wall. But there are hints that positive things are happening – the anniversary of The Big Issue would be a good time to galvanise that.”

In 1991, Hardwick ended with a short, sharp shock of a paragraph: “London is one of the richest cities in the world. Despite all the problems it’s still a great place to live and work in. The fact there are so many people on our streets should shame us all.”

It could just as easily have been written last week. Our work continues.

@adey70

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