Newsmaker: A man with big issues - John Bird Founder, The Big Issue

Helen Warrell

- Wants a radical rethink of the way we deal with social exclusion.

John Bird is not a man to mince his words. "I am a highly successful ex-homeless guy," he trumpets. "What about the poor bastards who are living through homelessness right now? They've got nothing - no one wants to help them out of it."

Since starting The Big Issue 15 years ago, Bird has seen the magazine become an international phenomenon. Today it is a social business with sister titles in Scotland, Japan, Australia, South Africa, and Namibia.

In England and Wales alone, the magazine has a circulation of nearly 123,000, distributed wholly by homeless vendors on Britain's streets.

But Bird doesn't waste time sitting back to admire past achievements - there's always more to do. His latest initiative, which will be implemented next year, looks set to revolutionise The Big Issue's entire purpose.

"We will continue to be selling on the street," Bird says. "But we will also set up an advance-purchase ordering scheme to employ homeless people as an alternative to street-selling.

"We would employ the homeless to work in offices, organising the distribution, development and marketing of the magazine. The street is still the worst place on earth for a homeless person. At the moment, 80 per cent of vendors give up on street selling, but this opportunity will leave them ready for the next post."

Nor has success weakened Bird's crusading zeal. "In 2004 the Joseph Rowntree Trust declared that more money had been spent on social exclusion since Tony Blair came into office than ever before, but we are still only scraping the surface," he says.

"The Government is putting money into projects that aren't transforming people. Money is being spent without results, so it becomes increasingly expensive to keep people poor. It's been abysmal. We need a different way of looking at social exclusion."

One of Bird's complaints is that money is not being spent on psychological support for the homeless. "I would say that most homeless people have got mental health problems," he says. "We are not hitting enough of the targets for enough people."

Bird speaks from experience. He became homeless at the age of five and spent his teens between prison and the street. "If you're homeless, living in the average homeless hostel, you're lucky to see your key worker for a couple of hours a week," he says. "A few hours with your key worker, who is already under-resourced and over-stretched, is not going to sort out all the shit that's happened to you since the moment you were born."

Asked if he stands by his claim last year that people are guilty of "mollycoddling" the homeless, Bird insists he was misunderstood. "I said that we mollycoddle homeless people in the daytime and ignore them at night," he says. "I was trying to make the point that the homeless get an enormous amount of support between 9am and 6pm, but the worst time is the night. Homelessness really hits you when everyone else is going home."

Bird is an entrepreneur, an energetic campaigner and an exuberant ideas man. But he is open about his faults, admitting that he is much more sympathetic to The Big Issue's beneficiaries than to his staff. He also claims he is better at crisis management than ongoing organisational support, and is more likely to come up with a multitude of new plans than to see the old ones through.

Above all, Bird's aim is to change social attitudes towards homeless people. "We have to dilute poverty by bringing poor people into the general body of society," he says. "Homeless people are not wearing their own clothes or living their own lives. I don't think homeless people deserve each other; they deserve something better."

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