Policing homelessness

As regular readers of my blog will know, these days I am particularly into matters to do with homelessness, which I return to from time to time. The following are examples of posts with a homeless theme (and there are more that relate) and all are relevant to what follows:

  1. Counting rough sleepers
  2. Homelessness and mental health
  3. Night Shelter time again
  4. Homelessness practicalities
  5. Homeless solutions (2)
  6. Homeless solutions (1)
  7. Housing justice
  8. Rent deposit schemes
  9. Helping the homeless
  10. Myths about rough sleeping

But It is not just writing about the subject, it is also working at the coal face and implementing solutions to help the homeless. As I told a politician friend, we need to raise awareness and find political solutions to complex problems as well as doing what we can do. They complement each other. Those I work with come from many different backgrounds and circumstances, and that includes the people who help the homeless and the homeless themselves. I help because I believe it will produce a better outcome. Ever since I got involved in community work, I have found working with the police more often than not produces result and I admire many officers who work at the edges of society in order to get positive results, and this needs to be acknowledged more than it is … however…

Police, like any public service, are accountable to the public, and in this case to uphold the law and keep the peace and NOT to pander to any political agenda. Homelessness is an embarrassment to many and, while I deplore the actions of councils like Westminster that disallow feeding homeless folk in public places and try to move them on at every opportunity, presumably because it does not look good, I sincerely hope the police do focus on doing their job. However, sometimes I read things that raise concerns and I learn of things such as the police becoming less involved in homeless prevention in my own area and more intent on implementing robust measures to move on rough sleepers deemed to be breaking the law or at least coming close, and that I find concerning, not least because I need to understand the law better and wonder what is being done to help the rough sleepers – a lot as it happens but not nearly enough.

As a supporter of and advocate on behalf of the homeless it is sad when I learn, as I did last week, of a place of refuge that gave shelter from the elements being closed to them, for where else do they find shelter? In fairness, the police are not always involved in doing the kicking out and moving on, and there are other players and bigger, more complex and manifold, issues that play a part as to why my own town, Southend, has a significant rough sleeper community still. And in fairness to Southend and in my opinion there is more help out there than in many other places.

Today one of my Facebook friends shared a link to a story with the title: “Feeding the homeless may feed a ‘lifestyle’ of living on the street, says top police officer” that went onto report “Feeding the homeless can “facilitate that lifestyle” of living on the street, according to Greater Manchester’s top police officer”. Granada Reports asked Chief Constable, Sir Peter Fahy, if he was “skeptical” about charities who feed rough sleepers. He responded that such work carried a “danger” of allowing people to continue sleeping rough“. As one involved with charities who feed rough sleepers, this touched a raw nerve, especially since there is an element of truth in what Sir Peter said and is part of the soul searching that frequently takes place. For my position on the matter, I refer readers to the links above. What is concerning is that it could colour how police deal with rough sleepers and view those who go out of their way to work with them. One of the comments to the story was from a friend who does a lot of work with rough sleepers: “doesn’t surprise me especially after a local officer last year issued a press release saying all vagrants are druggies and alcoholic“.

My point is that while homelessness may become a police issue for reasons such as aggressive begging and anti-social behaviour fuelled by alcohol, more often than not those who are homeless provide no threat and simply need a dose of human kindness. Many are pretty decent folk who have fallen on hard times and need a helping hand. For some, maybe many, especially when they have been long time entrenched in a “rough sleeper lifestyle”, getting off the streets may be a long and difficult process, especially given a lack of suitable accommodation and appropriate support and some, maybe many give up, sometimes resorting to alcohol for relief. But for the sake of human kindness these are matters that no-one should ignore – not prejudiced police officers taking the easy option, not councils wanting to clean up their patch and not get their hands dirty, not the general public who might rather believe if they don’t see a problem or are told all the help needed is out there then all is well, not service providers looking for excuses not to provide a service, not anyone.

I don’t know much but I know this much, there is a big rough sleeper problem on my doorstep and I know this is so because I meet almost on a daily basis with those who have been affected. Every day I learn of some new harrowing situation and, while I am pleased when help is at hand, I am also perturbed when the help I would like to see is not there and I see people being failed often on numerous occasions, by the systems that are meant to help.

Of course those affected can often do more to help themselves and that is where our efforts should lay, but they also need to be empowered and have the hope that when they push doors some will open. I am encouraged that there are many, often coming from unexpected quarters and representing all walks of life, philosophical or religious belief systems etc., who get it, care and do something constructive. I will continue to do my bit and encourage such folk to play their part to maximum effect and I will be watching the police in the expectation they will help and not hinder the homeless.

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