Varsity: The homeless should be helped, not criminalised

In response to new plans to fine people for sleeping rough, Charlotte Lillywhite condemns councils callous treatment of the homeless

Stoke-on-Trent council plans to reduce their funding of homelessness services by £1m – by Charlotte Lillywhite

Sunday January 7 2018

The proposal issued by Stoke-on-Trent City Council to fine homeless people for sleeping in tents, for persistent or aggressive begging, and for sleeping in public toilets, is appalling. Although the proposal concerning the use of tents has now been scrapped following a public petition, the council is still considering whether to impose fines for the other activities. An on-the-spot penalty of 100 may be issued, followed by prosecution and a bill of up to 1000 if the initial penalty is left unpaid. This doesnt mean that the fine for sleeping in tents is any less relevant, however: the councils desire to put it in place, and the support that the proposal attracted, is telling in itself.

Economic motives lurk beneath the surface of these proposed fines. The proposals were primarily supported by businesses in Stoke-on-Trent. This indicates that people are more concerned about the way that the city appears to tourists and consumers, than they are about those who have found themselves in desperately vulnerable situations. The charity Shelter recorded that 43 people in Stoke-on-Trent were without a home this year. It also noted a 22% increase in homelessness in the West Midlands in the last twelve months.

How do councils expect the homeless to pay these fines?

The prioritisation of appearance over reality is also revealed in the impracticality of these policies how does the council expect homeless people to pay the fines which are to be needlessly imposed upon them? This inefficacy forces us to interrogate the councils motives. Are the proposals designed to send out an intolerant message to the citys homeless?

A sinister behavioural system begins to emerge from behind the legitimate fa硤e of the councils policies: an effort is being made to criminalise the homeless. By trying to make sleeping in a tent an offence, and by attempting to criminalise aggressive and persistent begging terms which can be subjectively defined and thus manipulated councillors legitimise the stigmas which propelled them to punish rough-sleepers in the first place.They exploit social fears by forging an imaginative link between homelessness and crime. This validates their treatment of the homeless as criminals, excusing their perpetuation of prejudice by deflecting any criticism onto the idea of law and order. Through this, PSPOs (Pubic Space Protection Orders, which allow councils to criminalise activities within certain areas) become a series of legal loopholes, enabling unjustified punishments to be proposed.

This exploitation is widespread: 36 local councils in England and Wales are working on similar policies involving PSPOs, including Newport City Council, which is trying to place a blanket ban on rough sleeping and begging. On a larger scale, the government is distorting the reality of homelessness in our society. At PMQs on 13th December, Theresa May brazenly lied about the situation, claiming that statutory homelessness peaked under the Labour government and is down by over 50% since then. This implies that the Conservatives are responsible for reducing the figures. The truth, however, is that, while statutory homelessness did peak under Labour, this was a result of Conservative control from 1979 to 1996. Labour went on to reduce the number of rough sleepers to its lowest level since 1998. Homelessness only began to rise again once the Conservatives returned to power in 2010: the DCLG reports that the number of households in temporary accommodation has increased by 65% since December of that same year.

This rise is irrefutably linked to Conservative policy. Since coming into office, the government has slashed benefits, cut council funding and reduced the availability of affordable housing. This pushes people into desperate situations and has left a considerable number of them homeless. For example, the DCLG has linked 28% of cases involving those who have become homeless since 2010 to Assured Shorthold Tenancies. Those who are victimised by government policy are then punished by the same authorities. This is exemplified by the situation in Stoke-on-Trent, where the recent proposals run alongside a plan to reduce support for homelessness services by 1m, due to budget cuts.

This forces people back into the vulnerable situations in which they started. Only now there is a framework which legitimises their callous treatment. To truly change the situation, the prejudice which encourages the formation of these policies and grants them legitimacy must be dismantled: systemic action is required to change the causes of the issue rather than the effects. We need transparency to ensure reality is no longer distorted and to avoid the manipulation of the public at the hands of authority.

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