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All the above will hopefully help get people back into work. But at the same time we have to campaign to stop people slipping into homelessness. The Government have said they will not allow people to slip into homelessness and we have to hold them to their word.
The costs of letting people become homeless can be double the cost of sustaining people in their accommodation. So this is a spend-to-save exercise.
Then of course there is the big problem of how we make sure that The Big Issue is there for our vendors, those who need our immediate support while they cannot sell through lockdown. That is an added responsibility and we take it very seriously, and in fact embrace it. We have to make sure that we are there for vendors when there is nothing to vend. And we have to make sure that there is a Big Issue to come back to after the lockdown is over.
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There is also the added problem that rough sleepers need to be got back inside, like they were during the first lockdown. The government rushed at that need. But this time there does not seem to be the same co-ordinated determination.
As if the government is so overwhelmed by the enormous range of people, from actors to zoologists – yes, London Zoo is having a hard time (see David Attenborough’s campaign to save it) – who are seeking support.
So there is a sense that this operation, of saving the NHS and the economy, is too much for one government. And perhaps that is true. Are we nearer the day when the burden will be shared across Parliament? I know the last time I asked this question of a minister I was told that they had adequate capacity within the government. But no one’s going to blame the government if it puts its hand up and said that they could do with more hands to the pump.
Whatever the government is going to do, we at The Big Issue have a 30-year – almost – record of reducing the damage done by homelessness in as many lives as possible. That is an incredible record that we should be proud of. A record that we share with generations of homeless people, and generations of people who have put their hands in their pocket, and a smile on their face, and taken our vendors into their lives.
But what we all face now means a pulling together on a colossal scale. Unity is called for, not point-scoring. Pig-headedness, at times in evidence, is a luxury that no one can afford. We need to come out of this with an economy that can return to providing jobs and an NHS that does not leave the sick in the corridors of neglect.
This week I was going to talk about lockdown and the fact that we are not allowed to go very far from where we live. I was going to talk about my Irish uncles who never went further than three miles for almost the whole of their lives. Or Simon, who worked with me in the 1960s, who got off the Windrush as a child and moved to West London, and never left there for 10 years. Until I, to his absolute amazement, press-ganged him into hitching with me to Cambridge from Shepherd’s Bush. He was astonished at the strange world that bloomed beyond his work a few miles from the council flat he shared with his mum and sister. From then on we went everywhere until I was ‘moved’ for being an arse and locking the foreman accidentally in a greenhouse for the night.
I’ll tell more of those stories later, when we have time. But for the moment we have a big, exciting, meaningful fight against homelessness spreading into new areas of life. It’s as if in some ways The Big Issue was being prepared for this for the whole of its near 30-year life.
John Bird is the founder and editor in chiefof The Big Issue.