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Opinion

We’re back on streets where we belong, but still fighting for a better world

As Big Issue vendors return to the streets after lockdown, we’ll keep working to prevent another generation falling into homelessness

What an extraordinary feeling, sitting on the steps of St-Martin-in-the-Fields church in London’s Trafalgar Square, surrounded by Big Issue vendors. Fun you could cut with a knife.

We were doing the press launch for the return of vendors to the streets. Sitting on the steps of the church where we had first launched almost 30 years before. Although a viciously cold day it was almost bright, though without the sun.

This will be a big year for a 30-year-old social business. We have had to learn so many new things, like most people and businesses. But I wish commentators would stop saying things like “It’ll never be normal again”. How do these self-appointed experts know? Is it not better to think life always changes, often slowly, occasionally suddenly? We have to build the frameworks of resilience, of adapting to the new norm.

We joked and played silly buggers because we – like most of the world – are looking forward to being unconstrained. Free to go and be with others. Lifted out of the control of the state, which has seen fit to tell us what to do because of health.

Our small group of vendors for the photo session was brightly festooned in jackets and hats. A carnival of good feeling, and the few passing people seemed to enjoy the spectacle.

Lockdowns have taken income away from hundreds of Big Issue sellers. Support The Big Issue and our vendors by signing up for a subscription.

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I have had my two jabs, being antique enough to be offered them. That was a spectacle to behold, as hundreds of people lined up to be processed by cheery people who had volunteered to help the community. That was another outburst of the social kindness we have been witnessing over the last year.

A social kindness that also seemed to break out as people came up to us to find out what we were so happy about on a cold spring Wednesday afternoon in central London.

That corner of London is almost the symbolic centre of destitution. Here when I was a boy you saw dejected veterans of the First and Second World Wars who could not or would not return to the patterns of their former lives. Tattered and worn out, they kept themselves to themselves in the uniform of desperation.

Later as a runaway boy I slept up alleys and behind buildings, amongst bushes around Trafalgar Square, avoiding coppers and parents.

Later still in the late 1980s you saw the children of the industrial working classes whose parents had lost their jobs in the great clear-out of Victorian industries by Thatcher’s government. And Lord Whitelaw.

When asked what do you do with nearly a million jobless workers, Thatcher replied of the new homeless young “let them have benefit”. And the newly homeless you saw at the end of her administration were the result of that new social change.

We got involved because of that new street cohort, the youngest, most tired and washed-out homeless people I had ever experienced seeing.

Now of course the big issue is trying to prevent the next generation of young people from becoming homeless, as well as the not-so-young, driven by pandemic-induced poverty. The struggle is to keep people in their homes and jobs. The oppression of homelessness is far worse than any oppression coming out of lockdown.

That is the biggest fight coming down the line. To prevent a flood of the homeless

But for the moment we must get out and sell and deal with a return to as much normality as we can arrange. If we can develop the leadership and skills to weather the economic storms thrown up then we hope to avoid mass unemployment, evictions and the depression of a temporary life. But that is the big issue. Keeping people out of the Arctic colds of poverty brought on by Covid-19.

Sitting on the church steps for our photo session was a delightful thing to be doing. But stopping political mistakes around dealing with mass homelessness prevention – that’s the biggest thing we need to do.

That unfortunately is the biggest fight coming down the line. To prevent a flood of the homeless. The evidence is that we are inadequately prepared. As a society we need to move all our eggs into one basket: the homeless, jobless prevention basket. For that is the key to any acceptable future.

But do welcome us back on the streets. We have survived in order to keep up the fight. But the biggest task for us all is ahead of us.

John Bird is founder of The Big Issue.

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