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In defending the royal wedding, Windsor Council’s leader spouts every myth about homelessness

Simon Dudley accused people of making a “voluntary choice” to sleep rough.

The Conservative leader of Windsor Council has asked the police to clear the area of homeless people ahead of the royal wedding in May. And in doing so has perpetuated all the lies and bad attitudes we so often hear from the right about homelessness.

“It’s a choice”

In his letter to the police, which the Guardian obtained, Dudley says there are some homeless people there who are “choosing to reject all support services” and therefore their homelessness is a “voluntary choice”.

This is a damaging myth. It suggests that support is out there for all homeless people to be housed – but they’re rejecting it. This simply isn’t true. Homelessness is not a choice – and if it is, it’s one made by society rather than any individual, as the east London homeless charity SCT’s Harry Quilter-Pinner argues.

With homelessness getting worse – since 2010, there’s been a 60 per cent rise in households in temporary accommodation, and a 134 per cent rise in rough sleeping – the “support services” mentioned by Dudley are clearly unable to provide an adequate alternative to sleeping on the streets or hostel-hopping for everyone who has found themselves destitute.

As Homeless Links’ former head of regions Joe Kent reported, for people to move out of homelessness, society has to invest in the “right type of services” and “professional teams who do not give up trying to help”.

Until the government’s welfare reforms and cuts to services stop pushing people onto the streets, their options are limited.

We also know that 44 per cent of homeless people have a mental health diagnosis, and 41 per cent use drugs and alcohol to cope with mental health issues. Both mental illness and addiction make it harder for people to seek help, particularly when mental health provision in our health service is so stretched.

As Daniela Boyd-Waters, the trustee of a nearby charity in Maidenhead called the Brett Foundation, remarked: “They may not accept help at first, because of their mental health problems, their potential drug/alcohol addiction and, more often than not, their pride.”

So, if anyone is “choosing” to be homeless, that’s an indictment of society – not one person’s eccentric decision.

“They’re not actually homeless”

Dudley claims that, “a large number of adults that are begging in Windsor are not in fact homeless”.

This wildly complacent point – that not every homeless person literally has no roof over their head – was one voiced by Theresa May at PMQs recently. In response to a question about homeless children, the Prime Minister argued: “Anybody hearing that would assume that what that means is that 2,500 children will be sleeping on our streets. It does not! It does not mean that!… As we all know, families with children who are accepted as homeless will be provided with accommodation.”

This suggests that homelessness – which is usually measured in terms of households in temporary accommodation – only “counts” if people are literally sleeping on the streets, ignoring the vulnerability and poverty of those forced to go into temporary accommodation and beg for money.

“They are intimidating people into giving them cash”

Dudley accuses people asking for money of “aggressive begging and intimidation” and “marching tourists to cash points to withdraw cash”.

This is not corroborated by other locals, with the Thames Valley police responding that “we have not had reports of anyone being marched to cashpoints to take out money”, and Dudley’s fellow councillor Wisdom Da Costa told the Guardian that he had not encountered harassment. A lifelong Windsor resident told the same paper: “They don’t cause a threat to anyone. I’ve never seen any of them being aggressive.”

People living on the streets are far more vulnerable to violence and aggressive behaviour than those who walk past them.

“They’re criminals”

Dudley’s main point is that this is a problem for the police to deal with. He asks them to use powers under the 1824 Vagrancy Act (which outlaws rough sleeping and begging) and the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act to penalise people for being on the streets.

Homelessness charities argue that it’s counterproductive and cruel to treat homeless people as criminals just because they have nowhere to live. Murphy James of the local Windsor Homelessness Project pointed out that, “there is nothing villainous in what they are doing” so it’s inappropriate for the police to target them.

“It’s ruining the area”

Dudley warns that Windsor’s “national importance” is at stake, lamenting that “the whole situation also presents a beautiful town in a sadly unfavourable light”.

You could argue that a town isn’t particularly great in the first place if it cannot help its residents have a decent home and a decent life. Particularly not if the council leader feels the answer to the problem is punishment rather than help.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.