Homelessness gone by 2012?
I was immediately struck by the Labour pledge to end rough sleeping by 2012. Its a very commendable effort, but I do think there’s a variety of reasons why this policy needs watching; great as it would be to actually end street-homelessness by in 2 years, there could be much “devil” in the detail. Lets start with one simple observation: they want to end rough sleeping in time for the Olympics.
First of all, anyone who has followed the politics of the Olympics in recent years will know that when the “Olympic Party” comes to town, the homeless are the first to be cleared up. What Labour are doing is basically putting a positive spin on a policy that will ‘need’ implementing either way. London is, after all, the capital of rough sleeping in England, and so many people gravitate there I doubt solving it within the city is a solution that will last more than a couple of days before new people arrive.
During the Vancouver games, demonstrations took place, including a camp-based permanent protest, against the impact the event was having on housing and homelessness. In Atlanta, 96, the local council rounded up everyone sleeping rough and sent them by coach to New York, knowing it would take them too long to get back to “ruin the party”.
That Labour have come out with a policy on this is actually a good sign nonetheless. Many of these ‘clearances’ have been the subject of coverups, especially the most violent of all, in which police in Mexico City effectively carried out a ‘cull’ of street children, much like the Athenian police culled 15,000 stray dogs in 2004. In stating a public policy, rather than just ‘sweeping the problem under the carpet’, Labour is much more committed to tackle the problem equitably.
But that doesn’t make action taken on homelessness less likely to be against the interests of the homeless themselves. After all, daily police harassment, and in the case of City of London Police, spraying cold water on people’s belongings and safest available sleeping spaces, are all common amongst the experiences of today’s homeless people. In our haste to look like the problem is solved, it is instead driven underground, official figures being fiddled and police acting to disrupt reporting during independent counts like the Simon Community’s “Head Count” – an event that has to be kept secret until the night it happens just to stop the police carrying out a wave of arrests to lower the figures, which usually double on “official statistics”.
There is also the problem of definitions. Rough sleeping, or rooflessness, or street-homelessness is not the same as homelessness. Someone might be sleeping on a friend’s couch for free; they’re still homeless. Squatters might be counted as homeless, but are certainly not “rough sleepers”. There are also other problems, such as whether arresting someone for vagrancy removes them from the rough sleeping statistics. Its an important question, because criminalising rough sleeping is not the same as resolving it, even if it technically “ends” it.
There is essentially a split in motivations for dealing with the homeless, and it does make the whole thing an electoral minefield; is the aim to help the homeless or remove the eyesores from the doorways? Is it to deal with poverty, or push it out of sight? If Labour want a future fair for all, they need to pick the harder, more expensive and more complex options. This policy shows willingness to engage, but its how its implemented that will matter to those left on the streets.