There has for many years been a discussion about how to ‘take back’ public space. In a time where we have retreated from public view into our homes and rarely know our neighbours or meet across the fence, the world beyond the letterbox has often become a place of fear.
How ironic then, that those thousands that live rough in our public streets and parks feel much the same way – rough sleepers are more likely to be attacked, abused and robbed than any other group, and yet they are also subject to harassment from the authorities as well as the public.
When Big Issue vendor Ralph Millward was kicked to death in May it shocked the quiet Dorset community of Westbourne. But he was not the first, and will sadly not be the last – in the same month another homeless man in Bournemouth was badly battered in a late night attack, and a homeless man in Worthing was beaten and left with serious head injuries for hours before an ambulance was called.
Britain’s local newspapers often carry brief stories of such pointless city centre savagery, while the national tabloids content themselves with tales of grisly murders by “homeless schizophrenics”, thereby tarring with a broad brush two vulnerable communities denied a platform to defend themselves.
Of course violence can affect anyone, but without the protection of four walls and a door the homeless are at the mercy of any passing predator, whether that’s aggressive drunks, thieves – or the supposedly civil servants of the police and the blooming ‘homeless industry’.
The close working of the police and homeless charities has not gone unnoticed. Under Operation Poncho, City of London police and homeless organisations have for several years woken rough sleepers at night, hosed down their sleeping pitch and moved them on. Broadway, the organisation involved, states it offers advice and routes off the street, while rough sleepers argue the hostels offered are so unappealing that the street is preferable.
In July, Westminster police arrested 35 people when they and charity Thames Reach targeted beggars in central London during Operation Loose Change. Beggars do so to support drug addictions, the police said, while Thames Reach argued that arrest would force addicts to confront their addictions.
Writing to The Pavement magazine, one rough sleeper reported that after refusing to give his name to two Camden outreach workers, one told him that “he’d be back” the following evening with a constable to get it (without suspicion of criminality, police have no right to demand names, and the exchange suggests a data gathering and swapping exercise that would breach the Data Protection Act.)
Crime Reduction Initiatives, the firm operating Camden’s outreach programme, said: “To deliver social care interventions we work in close partnership with enforcement agencies” – though the combination of “care” and “enforcement” is mystifying.
So: stopped and questioned, targeted and moved on, offered only punishment instead of assistance, hounded out of the public realm and the public’s gaze; swap “homeless” for “black”, and you have the basis of the Brixton riots.
Sadly, the argument about “reclaiming public space” has less to do with reconnecting our communities as it has with brushing aside undesirable elements. That rough sleepers occupy our streets and parks is a testament to our failure, not just theirs. Those apparently working to help the homeless would be wise to not lose sight of their values and the human rights and liberties of others while falling over themselves to meet government targets.
[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, September 2009]