Homelessness will continue to rise unless we address the policies that are fuelling it
Hackney council has recently introduced a public space protection order that could see rough sleepers and beggars fined up to £1,000.
This is my neighbourhood. Yes, I see rough sleepers and get asked for money, and yes it can be an uncomfortable experience to see the wealth disparity of this city up close and personal. But it’s not as uncomfortable as the council’s decision to impose fines on the homeless.
Under the government’s austerity programme over the last five years, we’ve seen a rise in the number of people made homeless, up 77 per cent since 2010 according to Crisis.
Cuts to benefits and mental health services (46 per cent of rough sleepers have mental health issues) as well as persistent low wages have eaten away at people’s ability to maintain a home and some stability in life. When you consider soaring house prices and rents in London, especially in Hackney, none of this seems surprising.
Obtaining reliable figures on the number of rough sleepers in Hackney is difficult. The Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) collects data for 11 London boroughs, but not Hackney.
The council does an audit once a year, but homelessness organisations claim their methodology is flawed as they don’t survey areas where rough sleepers are likely to be, including parks and cemeteries. In a 2014 report, Shelter notes that Hackney has seen an increase in private rental evictions (above the London average) and that since 2005 the waiting list for council housing has almost doubled .
With cuts to public services set to deepen over the next five years, we need to find ways to address the root causes of homelessness – because it will undoubtedly continue to rise. Criminalising rough sleeping is not the way to do it.
People who can’t afford a roof over their heads clearly can’t afford a £1,000 fine – the proposal is as absurd as it is cruel.
Even if no-one is ever fined the full amount through this new order, the message it sends to the street homeless is clear: you are not our problem. This does nothing to actually tackle homelessness and will likely make things worse for those affected. People experiencing street homelessness need to be made to feel like members of society again, not a blight on it.
Hackney council is not the only one employing harsh methods to deter rough sleeping – metal spikes have been used in doorways around London; some inner-city boroughs have been accused of ‘hosing down’ people sleeping in public squares; and in 2011 Westminster Council tried to ban soup kitchens.
Oxford city council has also proposed criminalising rough sleeping but recently backed down after a campaign by local homelessness charity On Your Doorstep.
The London Assembly Housing Committee suggests that the best way to deal with people sleeping rough is to better connect health services with other local authority services. More than 40 per cent of rough sleepers come from privately rented accommodation and many were evicted or ended up homeless after a relationship breakdown.
Providing more health services, including mental health services and counselling, and introducing more rights for private tenants would save local authorities money and time dealing with homelessness.
And, more importantly, it would prevent some of the risks associated with living on the street, including violence, substance misuse and inability to escape the poverty cycle.
The only thing this public space protection order can achieve is to move rough sleepers elsewhere. Out of sight, out of mind. It is a shameful, inhuman policy and I hope Hackney council will reconsider.
Charlotte George is the coordinator of the Hackney Green Party. Follow her on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.