Society needs to stop assuming homeless people are all criminals and try to help, says Inside Housing’s anonymous columnist
We’ve all got a story
Every so often our housing officers organise a night out with colleagues in the homelessness service. It helps to remind us that we work for the same organisation, which isn’t always obvious within the silos of local government.
Walking back to the station with a homelessness manager after a recent ‘social’, we passed the inevitable scruffy blanket and dog, with a depressed-looking homeless person in residence. Full of alcohol-fuelled bonhomie, I went to give him a pound. But my colleague stopped me. ‘He’ll just waste it on drink and drugs,’ he cautioned, ‘there’s no need for anyone to be out on the streets.’
Memories of Louise Casey, in her days as homelessness tsar, flooded back. ‘Don’t give to street beggars, shut down your soup kitchens and don’t feel sorry for them.’ That was her message, back then. And, of course, it is still popular.
But that was before the recession dramatically changed the housing scene. Now, councils are short of cash and homelessness presentations in England are up by a quarter. Rough sleeping is rising too, and many professionals are worried that the problem will escalate to a crisis unless the coalition can be persuaded to change its policies.
You might expect more sympathy for the homeless, but instead this zero tolerance approach is growing popular, especially among the police and certain local authorities.
The views of Aberdeen Council, which campaigned recently to help rough sleepers with advice and support, seems to be at odds with the zeitgeist. The Aberdeen approach, described by local police as ‘protecting the vulnerable from the risks and harm caused by homelessness’, contrasts with the eviction campaigns of councils like Westminster, backed by the Metropolitan Police. The latter believes that most beggars are in organised criminal gangs. ‘Begging will not be tolerated,’ shouted a recent headline, and a Westminster councillor - a cabinet member no less - has even claimed that living rough is a ‘career option’.
This is consistent with the view, peddled by politicians and certain segments of the media, that the world divides into two camps - the people who do all the work and the rest, who are feckless, even criminal, parasites.
The problem with this perspective, aside from the hidden agenda which perhaps drives it, is its naivety. It takes no account of the actual circumstances of people who, though no fault of their own, find themselves unable to support or control their lives.
Of course there are criminals and you certainly shouldn’t assume that because someone is out on the streets, they have nowhere to stay. But the dominant view about beggars is that, like benefit cheats, most of them are ‘at it’.
In reality, our prejudices influence our views. Thus, Aberdonian rough sleepers are seen as innocent victims, while many of their counterparts in Westminster are considered career criminals. It says something about our society when the Met exalts the eviction of undesirables. Removing their cunningly hidden bedding has been a ‘successful intervention’ which has ‘cleaned up the Marble Arch area’ according to a recent press statement.
Zero tolerance isn’t just driven by the views of policemen and politicians. Councils and other authorities are responding to the concerns of their residents. There is precious little support and even less understanding for the plight of the homeless on internet blogs. One American blogger has even suggested shooting a few, because it would be an example to the rest. It is not unusual to read that Big Issue sellers are beggars, with no acknowledgement that they are working. I think there is a tribal element to this - ‘these people’ are not like us. The possibility that we might become homeless ourselves is simply shut out of the mind. Keep yourself sober, stay clean, work hard and you have nothing to fear.
No way of knowing
Can a little seed of doubt ever grow in the heads of people with such complacent views? How do they feel and think when they see a beggar on the streets? The reality is that you simply don’t know whether that person is raking in the cash and living in luxury, or genuinely desperate. When you stumble across them you have just seconds to size them up. You have no knowledge at all about their circumstances and there is little point in asking them - because the best stories may be told by the worst liars.
Even in the days when the government helped many more rough sleepers off the streets, I wasn’t convinced that putting cash in their can was wrong. With homelessness on the increase, I feel thankful that I still have a job, I can still pay my mortgage and I don’t have to worry about being hungry and cold. For now.
I have decided that I am not going to judge the person on the street as a career criminal, because I have no means of knowing. I’m not going to hesitate to give in case they might spend my money on drink and drugs, because I don’t know that they will. If they do, that is their choice.
I am ashamed to say I didn’t give that beggar a pound coin, though. Some days later I passed him again as I was struggling back up the steep steps to the station. ‘It’s quicker on the way down,’ I said, breathlessly making conversation. ‘Tell me about it, mate,’ was the reply.
Inside Housing’s anonymous columnist is a senior housing officer