The Problem with the Homeless

July 8, 2015

I read a newspaper article recently that filled me with equal amounts of fury and sadness: “Homeless People Could Face £1000 Fine for Sleeping Rough Near Tourist Hotspots.”*

The reporter added the following comment: “However, it is unclear how the council will collect this money from destitute homeless people.”

The piece of legislation through which this ironic and badly thought-out order has been enacted is Section 59 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. This section of the Act, intended to prevent riots and provide Councils with the power to protect their communities from harm, is instead to be leveraged against those that are the most vulnerable and often at their lowest point.

Ashamed of the homeless problem?

It is almost as if we are ashamed of our homeless problem – and so we should be.

We have bought into the idea that we are entitled to a certain way of life, regardless of the cost to others. We have succumbed to the relentless pressure of advertising and promotions that scream ‘we are worth it’, ‘we deserve it’.

In this paradigm, the homeless are viewed as a blot on our streets, a hindrance to economic growth, a nuisance against which we need to legislate and, if we can, criminalise so that we can put them in prison where we cannot see them. We cross the street so that we do not have to see or smell the man bundled in the corner. We have all been encouraged to fear him because he may be drunk or mad or high or all three.

Following a childhood of horrendous abuse, Dan ran away from home…

I am reminded of meeting with one of the men supported by our project in Bedford, let’s call him Dan. Following a childhood of horrendous abuse and neglect he ran away from home and lived on the streets, or more accurately, under bushes in parks and away from people. He drank in order to cope with the cold and deal with the damage that had been inflicted on him throughout his childhood. He got by like this for years, preferring the open space of rough sleeping to housing or hostels because he felt he could escape if he needed to. He consistently resisted the rehousing efforts of agencies there to help him because it made him feel trapped in his childhood again –  destitution was preferable, it was some form of control over his life.

He now has goals – a house, a job and hope for the future

Dan and his support worker used to joke that one of his goals was to sleep in a bed with the window shut. Now well into his forties and having spent most of his life on the streets, Dan struggled with shut rooms and preferred the floor. Dan’s trust and self-awareness was not won overnight but through persistent kindness, care and understanding that sometimes he would take two steps forward and five back. He has goals now that we would all recognise – a house, a job and hope for the future. We did not help Dan to find this by threatening him and confirming his fear and mistrust of authority. This was achieved through years of relationship and trust building, facing the truth of the past to move on the hope of the future, not a work of weeks but of years.

Those to be targeted by this policy are the ‘entrenched homeless’, those with serious and enduring addictions, mental health problems and histories of abuse and neglect who know no other way to live and persistently refuse the support and help of agencies. It is thought that fines and threats of court action against those who already have nothing will somehow prevent rough sleeping – or at least move it to someone else’s postcode.

An alternative solution

So here is my suggestion. Why don’t the councils take all of the money that they are intending to spend on enforcing this act and instead re-invest it in the services that have experienced such devastating cutbacks over the past 5 years. Provide real long-term solutions through support and care that help people to put their lives back together and solve homelessness one human being at a time.

I also challenge myself in this, not to buy into the idea that I am more deserving of mercy or compassion than the man sleeping rough in my home-town. I learned how to deal with pain, disappointment, fear and depression because someone cared enough to show me how and challenge me when I got it wrong. I will also try not to live my comfortable life at the expense of others.

The next time I see someone that is homeless I will not cross the road. I may even stop and ask them their name or invite them for a meal.


This week’s blog is from Claire Burton, Head of Business Development, Langley House Trust, 8th July 2015.