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Homelessness - A Shame On Our Country

'The tramps and drunks sleeping in doorways. What we need to do is get them by the scruff of the neck and deal with them. People have said they’d go into Bradford if they were eliminated.' Says David Heseletine.

David Heseltine, a Conservative Party Councillor in Bradford, caused outrage during a meeting of the Council’s regeneration overview and scrutiny committee. Meanwhile in Birmingham the headline from this year’s council budget was the £10 million cut to services, and in Worthing the Council is set to fine homeless people £50 if they beg for money in the street, using controversial legislation introduced in 2014.

PSPO's or Public Space Protection Orders introduced in 2014 allow councillors to ban whole rafts of whatever they interpret to be anti social behaviour. Like sleeping in doorways as Hackney Council tried, but after a public outcry overturned the decision. Wrexham Council banned sleeping during the hours of darkness in one area and Shepway banned sleeping in public places.

So where does a homeless person sleep? Do they just stay awake until they just can't anymore? Pretty damn sure when you get deprived of sleep for long enough at some point your body will just shut down. Maybe it's what these 'pillars' of our towns and cities want, and then they can claim they had no responsibility for that poor guys demise...

Sounds dramatic, but are we heading for a society when we can hunt down the dregs of our society on horses as a game show, with audiences baying for blood. I can't help feeling if we don't start shouting loud enough, this is where we are heading when we allow councillors to talk of eliminating people.

The Vagrancy Act 1824 (5 Geo. 4. c. 83) is an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom that makes it an offence to sleep rough or beg. Anyone in England and Wales found to be homeless, or to be trying to cadge subsistence money can be arrested.

Contemporary critics, including William Wilberforce, condemned the Act for being a catch-all offence because it did not consider the circumstances as to why an individual might be placed in such a predicament.

The abandoned prosecution against three men for ‘skipping’ food from an Iceland grocery bin in North London last year caused public outrage and disbelief. A recurring feature of this story was that the men were charged under an ‘archaic’ and ‘obscure’ section of the Vagrancy Act 1824.

The impression left by the media was that the current vagrancy law is a rarely used relic of Victorian times. To present vagrancy law today to as ‘archaic’ and quaint statute makes invisible one of the most important but least understood police powers concerning poor people. In a series of complex manoeuvres embedded within the leviathan-like reforms to fight crime and disorder, the powers of the 1824 Vagrancy Act have been resuscitated in a way that has not been seen for more than a century.

Indeed, the 1824 Vagrancy law has been re-purposed over the last decade as a truly modern tool to police poor, vulnerable and ‘suspicious’ people in public spaces. In fact the start of 2016 saw up to 113 councils in the UK looking to bring in legislation to 'bring about the end of anti social behaviour' in our town and city centres.

Not all were specifically about sleeping rough and begging, but certainly some of those councils included rough sleeping and begging alongside drinking in public places and using legal highs.

It seems more councils want to eradicate the problem of homelessness by making being homeless a criminal offence, instead of tackling the real issues behind what makes a person homeless. I feel a tad sympathetic towards councils though and I do mean just a tad, but only because we have a government imposing austerity like I can never remember and it's hitting the poorest most - but it seems for the landlords, whether they be housing associations or private, it's open market on rents.

This government, the LibDem/Tory coalition and the last Labour government have had opportunities to cap rents, but with so many politicians being landlords it seems about as likely to ever happen as personal jet packs to the moon by next Christmas.

Without the government acting on this issue it really isn't enough to tell councils to sort out the problem when budgets are being cut and housing is becoming a scarcer commodity in an ever growing population.

Experts say we are all just three pay days away from finding ourselves homeless so it's heartwarming to see that when councils have in the past attempted to make the problem of rough sleeping and begging go away with draconian fines, petitions have sprung up and gathered momentum rapidly, and in many cases forced councils to back down.

With a huge - and continuing - rise in homelessness since 2010, it seems councils are more determined than ever to eradicate the problem by using 1824 act, which is still very much in force - but plays right into the hands of the lefty socialists like myself who say we are being taken back to the days of the Dickensian workhouses.

My local town Kings Lynn, East Anglia official figures say has seen the biggest increase of rough sleepers in East Anglia from 5 in 2010 to 49 today. When I was a young lad most rough sleepers seemed to be old men, and we called them tramps, but today young people and women make up the figures.

In fact in Kings Lynn, it is evident that the increase is made up of under 25's. Having taken time to give these young people a hot beverage and something to eat, I have sat with them not just to make them feel someone cares, but also to listen to their story, how they came to find themselves on the streets.

The stories sometimes vary, but mostly the common theme is they were working, and their wages were just not enough to keep up with the rent - or they were just about keeping up when they were told the company they worked for was letting them go or their landlord was selling up.

In the case of one young girl she was kicked out by her boyfriend after he gave her a kicking, and another young girl I spoke to in Norwich ran away from home because her step dad hit on her. When she was having none of it he beat her, and her mother put her man before her kids first accusing her own child of lying.

For under 25's not entitled to the New National Living wage, it's impossible to find a deposit and a months rent in advance, never mind to extortionate fees letting agencies now charge, and references don't come easy when you haven't rented before.

Whatever it is that lands someone on the streets and sleeping rough, it cannot be argued that it has not risen since Tory austerity. Some councils simply want rid of beggars and rough sleepers, and some councillors have embarked on a spin exercise to turn people against the homeless in particular using beggars as the lever to do that, stating many beggars are not homeless - and one councillor claiming 80% of beggars were professionals, some even commuting from London to beg in Manchester.

It isn't just the creeping rhetoric spin of some (all, it seems are Conservative) councillors though that we should be concerned about, its the absurdity and cruelty of the idea that you can ban someone from sleeping rough by criminalising them and therefore making it harder for them to get off the streets, because a criminal record will have a detrimental effect on getting a home and a job.

The idea you can get rid of the problem by imposing any kind of a fine on someone who has nothing has to be the madness of a satanic mind, some fines being up to £,1000!! I mean as if being alone, vulnerable and homeless isn't enough we have law makers who think they can make the problem go away by putting the fear of God up those already afraid and desolate! I don't know about you but I am just waiting for the window tax to be reintroduced and maybe a tax on breathing......'shhhh' I hear you say 'don't give them ideas'.

How do we keep electing people who think making such draconian laws is morally and justifiably right? I see, on social media, examples of businesses installing spikes in front of shop windows, or devices to stop people sleeping in the doorways at night. Most recently, a Debenhams security guard soaking a homeless man, all his bedding and donated food before he opened the doors to shoppers - evidently it seemed fun, rather than showing the man a little compassion by simply waking the him up and asking him to move on.

It seems the security guard's day was made by slapping a man when he was down, but it was the comments on that particular post that shocked me most, the callousness of cruel jibes that he deserved a soaking, and the focus on the audacity of a homeless man having a phone he could use to access the Internet to share what had happened to him really made me wonder what is happening to this country I used to love so much.

It seems it isn't just councillors and politicians who would step on a rough sleeper to avoid getting their feet wet. The fact is that criminalising, fining or calling for the homeless to be eliminated will not stop homelessness. That only shames our country and it certainly won't stop the problem growing, as it has been, until decisive action by government and councils alike deal with it constructively.

Scapegoating beggars for high street decline seems to be an excuse for this issue I've not seen before in my lifetime. I mean, all homeless people spend what people give them on drugs and booze and make the streets look dangerous councillor in Worthington asking 'Why would you want to go into the town if you have young daughters like me?'

Is he just scapegoating, excusing the failure of the councils by suggesting that we should all be afraid of homeless people, especially if we have daughters and younger sisters. We all know how once you become homeless you turn into a man even if you happen to be a homeless woman and become a predator, a drunk and a druggie the moment that roof is no longer over your head, and because of this shoppers are staying away?

Anyone who is familiar with my articles will know I like to add a personal touch........ So let me tell you about my own, fortunately fleeting, experience of being homeless. Around 1994 I found myself single again and, needing a place quickly, I took a room in a flat share. It was only temporary and as I was still in work, I would soon have the necessary deposit and rent advance needed to find somewhere decent.

Two weeks in the landlord decides he wants his sister to move in - I get no notice and have no idea until I finish work one night at 2.30am (I was a club DJ) and try to insert my key into the front door. He had changed the locks! I knock and knock and eventually the guy I had been sharing with sticks his head out of the window and tells me what has happened, and to go forth and multiply.

I spent three nights in a disabled toilet in November in the clothes I left my room in, before a couple I was friends with offered me their spare room for as long as I needed. Those three nights were the coldest and scariest I can remember, but for good generous friends that one moment beyond my control could have been a disaster.

I was lucky. Others, I'm sure, haven't been. That was one of those moments when you know it was a 'there for the grace of God go I' prime example. Why in a country ranked so high on the worlds rich list are we all still allowing this to happen?

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