Rough sleeping: Great Britain moves toward criminalizing homelessness

Richard Sudan
Richard Sudan is a London-based writer, political activist, and performance poet. His writing has been published in many prominent publications, including the Independent, the Guardian, Huffington Post and Washington Spectator. He has been a guest speaker at events for different organizations ranging from the University of East London to the People's Assembly covering various topics. His opinion is that the mainstream media has a duty to challenge power, rather than to serve power. Richard has taught writing poetry for performance at Brunel University.
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As winter sets in, and the nights grow colder, one of Britain's long-standing issues is being brought into sharp focus: rough sleeping in the UK. It's an issue which can no longer be ignored.

For anyone living in London, the number of so-called 'rough sleepers' has visibly increased. The dynamics have changed. You now often see couples, families, even mothers with babies in the streets. As we head into 2017, we are reminded of the paradox which is all too often swept under the rug, and which is Britain's great shame. We are told that we live in one of the 'richest' and most 'developed' and 'civilized' nations in the world.

And yet, in a country which throws away tons of food each day, in cities in which hundreds of vacant houses remain unoccupied each night, thousands of our citizens are going to sleep hungry and without shelter. Many of them suffer mental health issues and are unable to access the services they need without support. There are many Eastern Europeans now on the street, Africans, migrants and some of the most vulnerable. Post-Brexit Britain is not looking like the land of hope and change and milk and honey. The capital is not a place of prosperity and equal opportunity. In fact, it looks more like Dickens' London.

Year upon year, the problem of rough sleeping persists. Governments come and go, each promising to curb the problem, while nothing changes. This year, MPs received a pay rise. The Queen announced that a grand and very British refurbishment will commence at Buckingham Palace costing the taxpayer millions of pounds.

So as a country, we seem to have an unlimited budget for endless war and for renewing Trident. But what about Britain's homeless? What did our government do for them this year, especially seeing as many of those living on the streets are ex-military personnel who've 'served Queen and country'?

Is acute poverty a crime?

The answer is that the government has criminalized rough sleepers in London, essentially making it a crime to be homeless. One might argue, that the way the homeless are treated fits alongside plans by the government and property developers to gentrify the entire city, purging working class families, ensuring London is to be a playground for the rich.

Today, signs adorn tube stations and the underground warning commuters not to 'encourage' beggars by giving them money or food. The government, evidently, in the wake of not fixing the problem themselves, would rather tourists not feed the people whom they have left to die. Perhaps that's the plan: Let people starve rather than house and feed them.

In any case, it's not just the government which has given up any pretense of even bothering to adhere to basic humanity. Many shops and businesses in the capital over the last year or so have constructed 'homeless spikes' at the front of their storefronts to stop people sleeping under them in the cold weather.

We've discussed the general problem, politically, commercially and culturally. We've seen examples where the government has prioritized public spending on anything and everything except housing its own citizens. But how do the numbers of rough sleepers compare with the number of empty houses in towns and cities like London?

Since 2009, the percentage of people experiencing any form of homelessness in the UK has increased every year. Statistics from the gov.uk website state that from 2013 until 2014, there was a 14 percent increase in people sleeping rough in England. The figures also indicated the number of rough sleepers in London rose by 37 percent.

In December 2014, a study conducted by the Institute for Public Policy Research indicated there were 635,000 empty homes in England. The study also stated that 22,000 of those empty homes are in London and have been unoccupied for longer than six months.

According to statistics released by the Department for Communities and Local Government, there were 742 rough sleepers in London during Autumn 2014. If there were 22,000 empty homes and 742 people sleeping on the streets, that means there were more than 22 empty homes for every person who was sleeping rough throughout Autumn 2014.

What this shows is that the government have the means to tackle the problem if they so wished, and that actually, the myth that there is a lack of housing in London is just that - a myth.

This winter, people will die on the streets of the United Kingdom while living in a system which fails to house them, and a culture which would rather pretend they do not exist. People will enjoy the festive period, Christmas and the New Year, spending significant sums in Oxford Street stores and the January sales.

Britain needs to either be more open in its brazen denial of human rights for its own citizens or stop claiming to be a beacon for human rights and justice. The government, and frankly, all of the political class are a disgrace. They don't deserve a pay rise. They should have their pay cut and an 'impact fund' created from the surplus to look after immigrants the homeless and all the other people living in Britain who don't seem to qualify as human.

Great Britain isn't great. Brexit was not a working class rebellion. Things stand to get worse, but for the most vulnerable, things are descending into a nightmare. Real grassroots-led community initiatives are probably the only means we now have of looking after our communities on the road which lies ahead. Politicians and the government are not fit to run a bath never mind a country which looks after the human rights of all of its people. Homelessness in Britain should be a thing of the past. Actually, it's getting worse.

Justin Brown contributed research to this story.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.