Home>Service> Global Love of Lives Award> 16th Fervent Global Love of Lives Award> John Bird, England—Saviour of the Poor
 [Fighting Indignity, Changing Poverty]  

The best way to help the homeless: Help them help themselves!
--John Bird
 
Born in the poor Irish quarter of London, John Bird grew up in a violent, impoverished, and undignified environment. He has been a thief, an addict, and a convict; he has had to run from the police and social organizations alike.  After a stint in art school he dropped out, and has essentially spent half of his life trying to overcome the adversities and misfortunes that surround him. Once a social liability himself, John is now the impetus behind the world’s largest street magazine, The Big Issue (TBI), and a successful ‘social entrepreneur’ using enterprise to better society.    
 
Growing up in difficult circumstances, John was never fond of ‘charity’ because their money and resources did not address the needs of the homeless, rather served to increase dependency on such charities – they perpetuated a status quo. What the homeless need is to be given a chance to work on their own steam to make opportunities for themselves! Thus, John got a job in a printing studio and diligently persevered until he started doing business in the publishing industry; eventually, at age 45, he launched TBI. The title was inspired by the ‘big issues’ in his life, namely poverty, disorder, and being a drain on society. 
 
In order to help the homeless survive on their own, a team at TBI gives them an initial stack of magazines to sell on the street. Once they have sold off all the magazines, they can then buy stacks of magazines wholesale at 50% off, yet continue selling them for the same price as before, pocketing the remainder. By doing so they become self-sufficient, have a legal income, and can get out of whatever tough situation they are in. In addition to lining the streets of the U.K. with magazines, TBI is spreading internationally; other countries are joining the cause. Taiwan became a member of the TBI team in 2010, joining Ireland, South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Malawi, Ethiopia, Japan, Korea, Australia, and Brazil. Together, TBI members have helped over two million homeless and marginalized peoples become self-sufficient.
 
After some success with TBI, John Bird cooperated with other organizations to set up the Big Invest fund, a mechanism to finance social entrepreneurs. Big Invest adheres to the same principles as TBI, but extends into other areas of society to solve problems on many levels. John Bird was convinced that the only reason he could create TBI, and promote it globally under the banner of social entrepreneurship, was because he has been in the same shoes as those he is helping. Currently, John is not only building up other social enterprises, he is also dedicated to cultivating leaders and other people that will bring change to the world.  John has been on a mission to change society through business, and vows to develop leaders that can shake things up. From the age of 5, as the world’s youngest homeless person, John defended dignity, challenged degradation, and created opportunities. He has now changed poverty for people, helped others help themselves, and enabled the dreams of many – worth of the name ‘Saviour of the Poor’. 
 
Begging can be innovative
The John Bird that everyone knows as a social entrepreneur did not have a very promising childhood: After WWII, when John was 5 years old, his whole family became homeless. At 7 he wound up in an orphanage, and at 10 he ran away to roam the streets where he lived in defiance of the law and public opinion until age 25. To defend his honour, John used violence against violence. To feed himself he would steel and loot, sometimes by breaking down doors and other times by sticking up stores. He did earn money by honest means as well, calling upon a pioneering spirit instilled at a young age, he figured out that he could collect wood and peddle it door to door as firewood. He would even unconditionally share some of his earnings with fellow homeless people. 
 
However, a better option than thievery, which always landed him in jail, was begging – this was a more ethical way to help himself and others around him. Waiting for someone to come and save him was no use, he decided to take matters into his own hands and make an honest living!
 
John started working in a printing studio and selling paintings. He spent 20 years in the printing and publishing industry, slowly gaining an understanding of the way business is done before eventually trying his own hand at it. When he linked up with business partner Gordon Roddick, together they launched The Big Issue.

Charity as a chance
There are certainly many people we ought to sympathize with and show compassion for, but running a charity was certainly not John’s first choice. “I think that poverty is like a cesspit, it doesn’t matter how much you put it, it won’t really change anything! Everyone has a bad attitude towards the homeless, and charity organizations aren’t tough enough, they are not willing to say, ‘Look at what you’ve done with yourself! Even if the world’s been unfair to you, you’ve still got to do something with your life.’” 
 
From the beginning, John Bird never really had the intention of helping the poverty stricken, “I’m not fond of charities and I hate idealistic do-gooders, so for me this is a business, and it’s my own business, otherwise I wouldn’t do it.”  Roddick provided the funding for John to start TBI – a for-profit magazine that only the homeless are allowed to sell!
 
“It’s the most reasonable alternative,” John says, “to give the penniless something to keep them mentally stimulated, that’s exactly what a job is.”
 
To ensure that magazine sellers’ degenerative activity is kept at bay, TBI laid some ground rules: First off, to avoid theft, sellers must buy magazines from the wholesalers. Sellers must agree to an appropriate tone and method when hawking the magazines, they cannot sell wherever they please or use inappropriate language. If sellers go on the offensive with TBI, a tooth-for-tooth retaliation is guaranteed. 
 
Of course, TBI is not the cure-all for homelessness, and employing homeless people can be risky. Early on, when they were still finding their feet, it was discovered that a safe containing £12,000 was removed from a wall by one of their employees. With such temptations present, old habits can resurface like an addiction. “Of the people we help, about one third of them spend their earnings on needles. Another third of them say, ‘I’ve got a job for life. I can sell 200 magazines a week, it’s enough.’ Similar to other means of aid, we have created something they can depend on. It is certainly better than begging, but it is still a dependency. We need to find a new means of encouraging everybody to continue moving forward.”

The effect of social enterprise on society
 
John Bird realized that TBI not only changed the lives of homeless people, it also saved the country much tax money. According to a story he shared, one day, sitting in a car, a brawny, homeless Scottish man got in the back seat with him. John was quite scared, and thought, what could this man’s intentions be? The man said, “After I left the military I was in and out of jail, I often took loads of money from cooperatives (English organizations that allow monetary transactions, similar to a bank) and just caused trouble all day. That is until four years ago, when I found The Big Issue. I’ve been clean ever since then.” The point here is not the homeless man, but the implications behind his story. One inmate costs the British government £35,000 a year, so by helping one bad apple turn a new leaf, we saved the government a four-year total of £140,000. Certainly this money can be used in a more productive way than keeping inmates! 

Promoting Social Enterprise Internationally
Social enterprise does not primarily seek profit, rather how to solve social problems. John Bird is well aware of this, and not only gives the homeless a means to support themselves – he enables them to earn their own life-giving keep – but also shares internationally about using this method to live an honorable life.  
  
In 2010, Taiwan joined the TBI team and has contributed towards the self-sufficiency of more than two million homeless and marginalized peoples. Other member countries include Ireland, South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Malawi, Ethiopia, Japan, Korea, Australia, and Brazil.
 
TBI had difficulties getting up and running. Early on, the price of publishing exceeded the price homeless people sold the magazines for. John Bird knew, however, that when costs were higher than revenues they had to build up hype. He tenaciously promoted the enabling effect TBI has on homeless people, how it helps their state of mind, and also convinced the sellers themselves that his enterprise can change their lives. He convinced the public that his enterprise could change society, and instead of the negative stigma surrounding giving to charities, they could give homeless people opportunities.
 
These days mere mention of TBI connotes John Bird, he has become the poster boy for the magazine. Whenever John goes somewhere to give a talk, it is another opportunity to promote TBI and push forward the idea of social enterprise! He knows that he can do more for society, thus he has collaborated with other organizations to establish the Big Invest fund – a means of financing social enterprise. The Big Invest fund also raises awareness of social enterprise in other fields so that social issues can be addressed on various different levels. 
 
John Bird has proved his leadership skills, and believes that good leaders do more than just improve themselves. Starting out as a street kid and turning into a social entrepreneur required that John influence the people around him. He created a better environment, and made an impact on society and even the entire world. Therefore, when you meet someone with a life crisis, you should not say, “we plan on helping you”, rather ask, “how do you plan on helping yourself?”

Room for improvement
We certainly need some people who will be busy buzzing around, trying to find ways to solve social problems. In the same vein, we need people that have been busy bees in the past – experienced leaders – to take the reins and confront these issues.
   
Everyone knows that prevention is better than cure, so why are we spending so much money to cure a problem instead of preventing it? Why are we always talking about how excited chef Jamie Oliver gets, but pay no attention to the people in the food industry that make his job easier, that don’t require investigation? Why do we love watching Oliver go to places that lack social resources? If we solve the lack in social resources, Oliver need not spend so much time finding ‘lunch ladies’. In reality, energy spent on social justice has focused only on finding a cure or a quick fix, but we have never even considered prevention.  
 
“We need to pay more attention to prevention plans, it’s more attractive. We need to target poverty at the source, rather than waiting until the 10 year old has lice, the 12 year old commits felonies, the 15 year old is malnourished, the 18 year old becomes an addict, or until the 20 year old goes to juvenile prison.” – John Bird.