OPINION: The heart of homelessness

LISA HARKER, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

It's no secret that The Big Issue is in trouble. Last month The Guardian chronicled a tale of mismanagement, financial incompetence and general loss of direction. Staff have taken voluntary redundancy in the wake of substantial budget cuts and the London editorial team has been forced to merge with its Manchester counterpart.

It's disappointing that one of Britain's most successful social enterprises appears to be in trouble. The Big Issue (and its charitable wing The Big Issue Foundation) sparked a new era in social action by demonstrating that change could be brought about through a simple business proposition.

On business grounds alone, The Big Issue deserves credit. Few magazines enjoy a circulation of 1.1 million, survive to produce as many as 500 editions and enjoy the kind of widespread public profile that this magazine has cultivated.

But whatever mistakes may have been made it would have been extraordinary if The Big Issue wasn't facing challenging times. Ten years ago the solution to homelessness was widely perceived to be about finding homes for people.

But it turns out that having a roof over your head is not enough. Family breakdown, debt, bereavement or substance abuse often precede leaving home. Homelessness is frequently a consequence of these longer-term problems, which cannot be resolved by finding a place to live.

So the biggest challenge The Big Issue now faces is one shared by the entire homelessness sector. Tackling homelessness requires much more than housing support. And while most agencies recognise this, their practice is at odds with their public image.

The success of The Big Issue rests on support for its chief purpose: to reduce the number of people who do not have a permanent home. Yet increasingly the success of its work is being measured in other terms, such as tackling drug or long-term relationship problems. The Big Issue is rightly looking at ways of tackling the root causes of homelessness. But it will also need to convince the public of the value of this approach.

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