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The interview: John Bird

July 10 2009
Bird: ‚Äö?Ñ??...they are always demanding things as if they were children, because no one has allowed them to grow up‚Äö?Ñ?? Bird: ‚Äö?Ñ??...they are always demanding things as if they were children, because no one has allowed them to grow up‚Äö?Ñ??
The Big Issue founder tells us his (Bird‘s eye) views on what lies in store for those with no fixed abode John Bird is not a man of few words. Famed for founding The Big Issue and - more recently - for speaking out about the vulnerably housed, Bird is seen in equal measures as a hero and a villain, with a talent for controversy. He tells us his (Bird's eye) views on what lies in store for those with no fixed abode You recently published a manifesto called 'A Rolls Royce service for the homeless, please'. "We're making a programme with Channel 4 all about this. Nobody really wants to bite the bullet over the issue of homelessness, so people get a shoddy service. Some of my friends and family - because they can afford it - have had what I would call a Rolls Royce service to help them out of their addictions or whatever it was that lead them to ill health or homelessness. They go to places like the Priory for help. "Then there are others who have no money, have gone through the state system and have never changed. They have been continually homeless, and often continuously in and out of the prison system. A mate of mine died recently at 49 years of age. He was a London-Irish lad I'd known since I was about 15. For the last 26 years of his life, he had social security, he got a flat, and he was supported in and out of the prison system and in and out of long-term hostels. But in the end, he was killed by the system because nobody ever did a fucking thing for him, other than maintain him. "What homeless people with deep problems need is intensive care. They need to come out the other side, recovered and independent." How much would it cost to provide a Rolls Royce service? "On average it costs ¬¨¬£60,000 per year to maintain a homeless person in a hostel, so holding their hands for 10 years costs ¬¨¬£600,000. And there are many, many homeless people who have been in the homeless sector for longer than that. "Why not spend more money on them now in order to save later? If we were to spend ¬¨¬£30,000 a year for two years - ¬¨¬£60,000 - on bespoke treatment, plus intensive care and counselling, we would save ¬¨¬£540,000. "Spend a couple of years on rebuilding someone's life, and you give them what the upper and middle classes give their families. Just give them what they really need, whatever it is, whether it's dance lessons or detox, and they will start to get better. "And I've seen this work again and again in the lives of people I know." Why do hostels fail to help in the recovery process of someone homeless? "On the whole, hostels should not be called hostels: they should be called hostiles, because hostels are largely hostile to the needs of homeless people. "Certainly, homeless people need to be lifted off the streets because they are destroying themselves. They need to be given places of safety in therapeutic communities whether they like it or not, because often their mental health problems do not allow them to make decisions by themselves. But this just has to be one of a number of stages in getting the homeless off the streets. "If you go into the homeless system, it's a bit like going into hospital. You see the doctor, who tells you you're very ill and that you need to go to hospital. You go to hospital, and they say you need a major operation and a long recovery. They show you where the TV is, the remote control, the bed. They give you a library book and ask you what you want for tea tomorrow night. That's your first day of hospitalisation. The second, third and fourth day are just the same. But on the fifth day, the nurse comes in and tells you that you're going home tomorrow. "But I thought I was really ill - I haven't even had my operation!" you say. And that is what generally happens to the homeless within hostels. "Ninety-five per cent of all money in this sector goes into emergency or stabilisation, and only five per cent into cure. If you've been fucked over or abused as a child, will a big house with a cafe area, dorms, toilets and a consulting room (where you can see your key worker for two hours a week or get a couple of hours a month of psychological help or some career advice) really change your situation? A lot of these people are well over the top, as I was when I was young. They need what, unfortunately, nobody gave me either: deep and intense psychological help." With an emphasis on cure not maintenance, how could a Rolls Royce service for the homeless come about in the UK? "For me, the future of the world is about participatory and not representational democracy: I don't want you to represent me - I want you to represent yourself. It's about getting the people with the problems involved in the solutions. Homeless people have to be involved in the solution, which is just what we did with the Big Issue. The solutions should not be left just to experts and trained professionals. "If you look at homeless people, they are always demanding things as if they were children, because no one has allowed them to grow up. They are kept as eight-year olds. Eight-year-olds put their hand out for money, for sweets, for the clothes they want... and Mummy and Daddy put something in it. Homeless people should be given the freedom to make their own choices. "You can't leave all problems to government or to your MP to solve. I want people to be trained to understand government budgets so they can vote on how the budget's going to be spent because they know how it works. "The world trains us to be children because the people in power treat us like children, so a change could come about if we recaptured the heights of politics. We have to start with a revolution where we make the decisions based on knowing where the wealth goes." Have you been in conversation with the British government over the issues of homelessness? "I have been in conversation with them over the years, but they have never listened to me. I'm probably going to stand for the Mayor of London in 2008 and I shall be making a lot of noise about why it is that London is full of homeless people and why they're warehoused. "Why is it that there are 16 prisons in the London area which are a kind of social machine for creating homelessness, poverty and crime? I'll be telling the Home Office that I don't want them polluting my London any more and getting them to tell me how they plan to stop the creation of crime, homelessness and social abuse. I don't tolerate the indifference that society has towards the homeless. I don't want London to be like Lagos, and I don't want London to turn into a Third World city where people can live and die in the streets and you don't care. " How does life for the vulnerably housed differ from what it was like when you were on the streets as a young man? "The homeless used to work for a living - they didn't get things for free. They weren't allowed to beg because if they did, they got done under the Vagrancy Act. If they slept rough, they got done under the No Fixed Abode Act. The laws are still there; we just don't use them. Forty or 50 years ago, the homeless would have to live in a place like a roundhouse or the Salvation Army. Then they'd have to work, which they could because hundreds of businesses employed people on a day-to-day basis, on a casual list which paid around five shillings a day. "Now the homeless are sitting in hospitals or are being paid to do nothing and not to be responsible. They need a chance to grow up. They just live on state benefits and their minds are being destroyed by well-intentioned do-gooders who think they're helping when all they are doing is creating dependency rather than independence in the people they are trying to help." What does the future hold for UK's homeless and vulnerably housed? "There will come a time when the industry will lose its support because more money is being spent and fewer people are coming out the other end. In the same way that climate change is having enormous and increasing effects, the problems of homelessness are rising. More and more people are getting more and more desperate. Unless we pass our buck to the people, we're lost." John Bird's views are sure to raise some comment from readers, so do write in to let us know your thoughts. Is he calling for a fairer world or a class war? Are his comments accurate? Is he in touch with today's homeless? Tell us your opinion on what he's said here; you can write in or email us.