The Journey: 90th anniversary

The biggest issues

Lord John Bird MBE is a campaigner, social entrepreneur and life peer. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Big Issue, and a lifelong advocate of YHA. He spoke to The Journey while at a critical point in helping to push through the Ride Out Recession Alliance, which aims to develop practical steps and solutions to prevent families losing their homes.    

Q When was the first time you stepped foot inside a hostel?

I was around 15 and at a boys’ reformatory school. The headmaster was keen on the outdoors and he took us to YHA Edale. Where I lived in London there were no trees, no hills. We had Kensington Gardens nearby, but there was no nature. All the trees were in people’s gardens. Going to Edale was just absolutely phenomenal, and I’ve been returning there now for 58 years, as well as going to other places such as YHA Blaxhall in Suffolk, YHA Ilam Hall and YHA Ironbridge Coalport, as well as dozens of others, some in the cities and some in the countryside.

Q YHA exists to enrich the lives of all people, but especially the young. How important is it that young people experience the outdoors?

It’s really, really important that young people get the chance to experience nature, that they get the chance to be wet and cold, walking over hills and doing all those sorts of things. It’s so essential because every one of the people I was with at Edale – there were about 12 or 14 of us by the time we got back to our institution – we were all talking about how we wanted to go back. We then started going for long walks at the weekend, going camping, and going to other youth hostels in Kent and Surrey. It started a process, and it carried on through my life. Then I became a father and I started to bring my children, and they’d stay in youth hostels, and now I have another family and I take them and we go caving and raft-building, stuff like that. It’s important for me, and virtually everybody I know from a disenfranchised background has greatly enjoyed the experience of being in Mother Nature.

Q You’ve mentioned a stay at a boys’ reformatory school. How did you end up there? 

Well, I got caught! I started from behind really. I was born into a London-Irish slum. My family were from Ireland, there was no money, there were shared toilets with seven other families. We didn’t have a bathroom, there were rats, mice, lice, everything. I loved the place because it was where I was born into, but then my parents couldn’t pay the rent, so we were made homeless. We then lived in a void in my grandmother’s cottage, round the corner. It sounds very nice, but it wasn’t. Then we were in a condemned house, and then in a Catholic orphanage. I started to get into trouble when we left the orphanage and moved into a council flat in another part of London.  I was getting caught for shoplifting, stealing bikes and even stealing cars at a very young age. I was breaking into offices, vandalism, arson, running away from school and running away from home. I was in a constant seesaw relationship with the police, with teachers and everybody. I hated authority, I hated schools and I left school at the age of 15 with virtually no skills, certainly none that any employer would be interested in. I was hardly able to read because I was dyslexic. The Approved School, as they called them then, the reformatory, was an attempt at turning me into more of a citizen. They gave you the chance to do things, so I learnt a bit of printing there, I learnt brickwork, I learnt about gardens and about nature, I learnt other things that were very useful. They encouraged you to go out and sleep in the countryside, go to hostels, go climbing.

I was an incredibly disturbed post-war child, and there was a lot of us like me. Youth hostels were just home from home. I go to youth hostels and I can see that there are people that are like me, who, many years later, are trying to find their way in a different relationship with the world. Youth hostels offer an opportunity of water, hills and outdoor pursuits. It’s all incredibly important for young people who are looking for a way out of the grief that they are in.

Q YHA was able to give help to homeless people during lockdown. How do you see their fortunes faring in the future, and how can social enterprises help?  

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Right now, there’s the homeless and there’s the soon to be homeless. The homeless who the government put their arms around were the rough sleepers, they brought most of them into hotels and hostels. I was really, pleasantly surprised that YHA was doing that because it was a very very necessary thing to do; I was glad the YHA that I greatly admire was doing it.

So then that ended and some people had been housed and some people hadn’t been housed. Street homelessness is not out of our system yet and in order to get it out of our system we would have to face up to some very serious pieces of understanding. One of them is that virtually all of the people, including those on the street, come from the same kind of social background and have had failures in their lives, like me, almost from the moment that they’re born. They’ve had problems from parenting, problems with sociability, problems with poverty. You have to do something really, really serious and I don’t see the serious thinking. I see a lot of stopgaps. It is a major problem and has been going on virtually all of my life.

Since I started The Big Issue 29 years ago, I’ve been advocating to the Government that they should not leave people on the streets. It invited abuse and accepted the fact that the streets are often an extension of the A & E department, or an extension of the mental health wing of the asylums that they got rid of in the eighties.

I was campaigning in the eighties, before The Big Issue, with lots of other people, saying if you close down the mental health facilities, then the streets, the prisons and the hospitals will all fill up, which is exactly what’s happened. Most of the people I know of are people who need mental and physical health issues to be sorted out, and I don’t see anybody rushing to that area.

The other big issue is that probably in the region of about half a million families will be evicted because of COVID-19 induced poverty; you’re going to have hundreds of thousands of people slipping into homelessness. That won’t be the usual people who would have come from poverty, they’ll be ordinary Joes and Marys who worked all their lives and lost their jobs through no fault of their own and are out on the streets. For that reason I’ve been converting The Big Issue into a big campaign, around the Ride Out Recession Alliance, that is to get everybody, including YHA, interested in working with us, and selling the idea that if a family falls into homelessness it might cost two or three times what it would cost if you kept them in their homes, paid their rent or mortgage, and trained them up for new jobs, by creating new jobs and by getting them back into the workforce so they can support themselves. We are in a delicate place.

Q Alongside the Ride Out Recession Alliance, what else is big on your agenda?

I’ve got a bill going through both houses called The Wellbeing of Future Generations. This is because there are so many laws and legislations going through, and that have gone through over the years, which echo the laws of unintended consequences. You can create a law in one decade and 10 years later, 20 years later, you find things have gone wrong. The Wellbeing of Future Generations is trying to pass everything through the prism of ‘Is this good for children yet born? Is it good for 50 years’ time? Is it good for 10 years’ time?’. And having gone through Covid-19, it’s blatantly obvious that one of the big things that we should have been doing before the pandemic was getting rid of as much poverty as possible. The hospitals were already full up, at 85% capacity, and it was full of old people, people in need, people who had suffered because of their lack of ability, due to the food that they ate or jobs that they did. Hospitals were a kind of social sponge that soaked up and hid all of these problems around poverty. What we’re trying to work for, and on behalf of future generations, is to work for today and tomorrow immediately by keeping people in their homes, not allowing them to slip into homelessness, because that would destroy them.

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