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.
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.