Monday, January 19, 2009

Want to help the homeless? 'Get real' says John Bird, founder of Big Issue

In November 2008 I interviewed John Bird, founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue magazine.

It seems in Ireland some people are happy to let the government take a stand on homelessness (as evidenced by this survey on and some believe they should figure it out for themselves. Although in a recession and donations are dropping, people are still giving money to homeless people to help them.

John Bird says in order to help the homeless you should "Get real. Go and help the homeless to help themselves to get out of homelessness. If you give something away for nothing you enslave the recipient because you give them a reason to come back again and again.

One of the major problems with people in need is that they are kept in this constant state of living on pocket money that we hand out as and when we see fit. Get real - go and help the organisations. Petition the government to create the kind of support that is necessary to get people out of homelessness.

There are few people who can talk the talk as well as John Bird, because he has walked the walk. Born to poor London Irish parents, homeless when he was five, in a reform school at 15, expelled from college, spent time on the run from the police and social security, was a revolutionary in Paris and became a businessman all in the first part of his life.

17 years later, in September 1991, the first issue of the Big Issue magazine was launched. He was 45, had never managed anyone and his sales team was made up of homeless people who he describes as "the most unreliable workforce on God's earth".

photo of Big Issue magazine editor John Bird
Photo from

When I found out that John was speaking at Chain Reaction, a conference in London for social entrepreneurs, business leaders, community activists and more, I put him on my "would love to meet" list.

I'd read about John, followed his story, admired the uncompromising way he achieved things. He gave a talk during a busy lunch, interrupting people with a loud shout into the microphone to "Shut up. We are talking here, trying to change the world in a lunchtime." The room fell silent as he continued to speak on his ideas on business, his experiences with the homeless and the work that Big Issue does.

After the talk he was immediately swamped with admirers and business people wanting his advice. In the end I had to grab him during his lunch for a quick, off the cuff and slightly less formal interview than I had planned.

Background information:

John's first involvement with helping the homeless came through being homeless. When he went to present to the establishment homeless charities, their reaction was:

'What do you know about homeless people? Who are you? Have you got a degree in it? You haven't worked at a shelter through the night, been on a helpline, been on a sleep out, rattled cans in the street, or wiped a homeless person's arse.' I replied: 'I've been homeless, I've been a rough sleeper, and I've had drink, drug and violence problems. Maybe it's time that someone who's had the problem of homelessness was able to get involved in making the decisions'. They were completely bollocksed by that.
Homeless charities vs work:
When we started out there were literally hundreds of charities just in London alone for the benefit of the homeless. I didn't want to do a charity because charities piss me off. The ones I met were full of 'nice' people who were totally sentimental about homelessness and I wasn't interested in sentimentalism because I thought the world was a shit hole.

I thought homeless people were treated abysmally, especially by themselves, and that charities were not tough enough to say to homeless people 'Look you're causing these problems yourself. The world screws you over but you've got to sort yourself out'.

The charities we met were all about giving homeless people another handout rather than giving them the one thing they needed: opportunity. Opportunity to a homeless person is a job; in fact what keeps most of us from falling to pieces.

Work gives you social association, friendships, a sense of responsibility and the chance of making your own money so that you don't need to ponce off the state and ponce off your parents.
As a charity you can't give work to the disposessed; you can only be nice to them, and give them some soup and a roll as they sit in their doorway. This isn't opportunity, it isn't even respect: it's a kind of unconditional love normally reserved for little children. It seemed utterly logical to me to give people that have fallen to pieces the thing that keeps you and I sane, and that is work.

Photo from here

Don't give cash to homeless people, give it to the charities:
Far harder than retraining the homeless is persuading the public not to throw cash at homeless people: nothing has done more to create a dependency culture amongst the dispossessed than the indulgent attitude people have to giving. It's almost as if they're walking around with cash in their pockets saying: 'I'm really upset with this pound. But hang on, look there's someone over there who looks sad and they've got dirt on their face. Here you go...'

Even now, with the paper out there making sure homeless people are selling rather than begging, we haven't managed to control that impulse; people want to pay £5 for a magazine that costs £1.40. No homeless person is going to say 'hang on, I don't need your money', it's going to make them think that being dirty and living on the street is a sustainable way to make money.

What people don't realise is that if you give something away for nothing you enslave the recipient because you give them a reason to come back again and again. I was homeless, I was living on the streets. I hated the people who gave me money and I loathed the people who didn't. It changes your mind. It screws your life.

If you indulge homeless people and give them no barriers or limitations they demand more and more attention like a high maintenance lover.
Still a way to go:
I still think we haven't come within a mile of our potential and that's my biggest concern. The very idea that you take people who are in crisis and instead of saying 'this is what we're going to do for you' you say 'what are you going to do for yourself?' is really revolutionary and of course could go way beyond homeless people.

If you took the Big Issue concept and used it in a doctor's surgery, a school, in nutrition... actually getting people to take responsibility for their issue, that's the potential of The Big Issue and it's huge.

We also need to be a bit honest: our intervention into the lives of homeless people is not without its issues. A third of the people we help will use the money to stick stuff down their throats and unto their arms. This is life, let's not kid ourselves that we can achieve 100%.

Another third of our vendors will say: 'ah, I've got a job for life. I can sell 200 papers a week, and I can live off that'. Like all interventions our solution has created a new dependency, and yes, it's better than begging, but it's still dependency. We have to find new methods of moving people on.
What people can do:
Get real - go and help the organisations, the charities that work in the hostels. Go and help the homeless to help themselves to get out of homelessness. Petition the government to create the kind of support that is necessary to get people out of homelessness. Now that is around drink, drugs, psychological help.

We need to make a very heavy investment in the lives of single people, single homeless people. We need to give them a Rolls Royce service, the kind of service that the posh can give their children in order to get them out. The thing is, the homeless cost more money than the posh spend on their own families. It's like that.

One thing you can do right now, if you haven't already, is click here to buy a copy of Homepages, a collection of stories from Irish bloggers. it will cost you €14 and is a great read. Proceeds go to Focus Ireland, a charity which people out-of-home.

To read more about John Bird, including his thoughts on social entrepreneurship and business, you could buy Everyday Legends, the stories of 20 great social entrepreneurs, on which this interview and post was heavily based.

Featuring John, Jamie Oliver, Bob Geldof, Trevor Baylis, Siobhan Freegard and more, the book is a fascinating insight into how ordinary people can play a part in changing the world.


[I am aware at the end of the video, I say "and now, over to you" - over to who I'm not sure, it was just to the lovely person holding the video camera. It was very, very funny at the time.]


  1. although i agree with some of the things this fellow says,i dont agree with all. We have a huge homeless issue here locally as well, and there are a variety of organizations who are set to help. However... when one does the actual research into how much of your dollar goes for the actual homeless person (ie food, clothing, temporary shelter, etc) and how much goes to 'run' the organization (ie some paid positions which are needed to do paperwork for gov't funding, office space, supplies for that office, heat, light, rent etc.. ) it turns out that it could be as little as 10 cents from my dollar which is going to the homeless person. Many times that person on the street could use my dollar for a cup of coffee, or my two dollars for a hot dog off a street vender. And yes, often i actually buy them food rather than hand over cash. Its a stop gap measure but its immediate and needed.

    good blog though.. makes one think seriously

  2. So true what he says about spending money on services around drugs, drink and psychological help. I rarely give money on the street - mostly because I know it's not giving help at all but also because I feel giving money from my pocket to someone on the street diminishes their status and I'm not comfortable with that.

    Does his organisation focus exclusively on street homelessness or do they have a wider remit lie Focus Ireland?