Freezing temperatures currently grip the UK and many rough sleepers are at risk of perishing from the cold. Only two days ago, the body of Rob O’Connor was found in a Chelmsford doorway. The news came only a fortnight after a homeless man died meters away from the Houses of Parliament. Amid these tragedies, politicians continue to misunderstand the mounting homelessness crisis.
Last month a Windsor councillor, Simon Dudley, was revealed to have written a letter to Thames Valley police demanding they enforce vagrancy laws to remove beggars from the streets ahead of the royal wedding. Dudley was seeking these draconian measures to take action against what he described as “aggressive begging and intimidation”, and “bags and detritus” accumulating on the streets.
Now the police in another quaint part of southern England have got in on the act. Sergeant Phil Priestley from Ely said that “there are no rough sleepers in Ely”, and that all the people who had been seen begging recently had been catered to with regards to housing and support. Priestley also urged locals to not give money to the beggars, but instead to think about offering it to charity and giving them food or a hot drink, while a local council spokesperson suggested the beggars were making “substantial amounts of money”.
Perhaps the police don’t realise the narrative that these kind of comments feed in to. Some people will take this story at face value – not delving beneath the headline to see the more nuanced position of the sergeant involved – and it could seek to confirm pre-existing prejudices they have about the homeless and beggars. Such as the idea that beggars are con artists, making a killing from their polystyrene cups. The dirt under their fingernails is merely part of the act; they deserve an Oscar, not pocket change. You’d expect to hear this sentiment in a pub at last orders – you don’t expect to hear it from a council leader, and certainly not from the police.
I doubt anyone asking for money on the streets of Ely is an exceptional thespians preying on the kindness of locals. I’ve experienced homelessness, and although I wasn’t sleeping rough long enough to have resorted to begging, I met many who had. None of them took to the streets to make their fortune.
For many who are unfortunate enough to find themselves on the streets, the random kindness of strangers can decide if they eat that day. If you’re one of those people who are willing to accept the idea that rough sleeping is a myth, I’d urge you to look at the statistics that show that 4,571 people made their bed on the streets in 2017. If statistics don’t convince you then I’d urge you to think logically about this claim. As I write this, temperatures in parts of the UK have plummeted to below zero. Do you really think there are people living inconspicuously comfortable lives who will brave sub-zero temperatures just to con people out of the odd handful of coppers? Rough sleepers have died and many more are at risk; do you honestly believe these men and women risked their lives to swindle you out of your pocket change?
It is true that not everyone who begs is homeless, and not all homeless people beg. Nevertheless, those who do beg are often vulnerable and experiencing extreme poverty. One can also understand why people are reluctant to hand over money to beggars, and why the police officer in Ely might advocate this approach. The thought that you might be enabling someone’s drug problem is not a misguided one, with a homeless charity in London, Thames Reach, estimating that 80% of beggars in the capital are doing so to fund a drug habit. Although this figure isn’t necessarily representative, your money would probably be better directed towards charities and campaign groups as Priestley suggests. But it’s a difficult choice when confronted with such misery.
Peddling negative stereotypes about beggars and rough sleepers is definitely not helping, but this insensitivity pales in comparison to the continuing negligence in Westminster. The government claims it is serious about tackling homelessness, but it carries on cutting services such as social care, mental health services, and housing services that help prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.
The Tories’ penurious social policies are placing increasing strain on charities who are struggling to cope with the rising number of people in need. The government’s laxity also means help for the homeless is patchy and inconsistent. As temperatures fall, homelessness hits the headlines, people become active and rough sleepers enjoy some respite from their misery. But what about the rest of the time? Homelessness is increasing year on year, and we desperately need a coherent strategy to tackle rough sleeping – yet we simply don’t have one.
Giving money to street beggars won’t solve the homelessness crisis, but if the government were as liberal with their purse strings as some of Britain’s commuters, then maybe towns like Ely and Windsor could better maintain their picturesque facade this winter.
• Daniel Lavelle writes on mental health, homelessness and social care; he received the Guardian’s Hugo Young award in 2017
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Source : https://firenewsfeed.com/opinions/1210192
Source : https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/27/beggars-snow-ely-policeman