Imagine you have almost nothing in the world. No job, no home, no possessions. You have no material wealth at all. The only thing you have is your right to exist, your only possession your right to sit, to sleep, to literally just be.
Now imagine having that taken from you as well.
This pretty much just happened, in London. Not in Qatar, or Russia, or one of countless other places where human rights abuses are about as common as passing traffic.
This happened in Hackney, where the council recently introduced a Public Space Protection Order allowing police and council officers to issue fines of up to £1,000 for a range of so-called offences including begging, loitering and rough sleeping.
In other words, a London borough just criminalised being homeless.
Homeless people have faced an increasing infringement of their rights in recent years. Until now, this has largely been driven by the private sector, which uses armies of security guards and "defensive architecture" such as anti-homeless spikes and anti-sleeping benches to ensure only the right kind of people are allowed access to their properties. This is itself a problem, given the rate at which public space is being seized by the grasping hands of private companies. But the fact that a local authority – a body which has a duty to protect its most vulnerable residents – is criminalising homelessness, marks a shocking escalation of an already disturbing trend.
Jon Sparkes, chief executive at homelessness charity Crisis described Hackney's policy as "counter-productive", pointing out that "people in desperate circumstances deserve better than to be treated as a nuisance". Mark McPherson, director of strategy at Homeless Link, said, "any move to criminalise sleeping rough could simply create additional problems to be overcome". In Oxford, a similar proposed ban on rough sleeping was scrapped after an outcry during the consultation process. By contrast, Hackney Council didn't bother conducting a public consultation before introducing the policy. If they had, they might have heard from tens of thousands of people who have signed a petition calling for the rough sleeping ban to be lifted.
All this probably shouldn't come as a surprise. This is a local authority which, when it's not harassing rough sleepers, goes about bulldozing historic buildings, clamping down on nightlife, and generally turning its patch of East London into one big gentrification Disneyland where the strict rules and expensive food are all worthwhile so long as the value of Sleeping Beauty's Castle keeps rocketing upwards every year. But making homelessness illegal? This is a new low.
The council has claimed that enforcement will be a last option and that the order is intended to persuade rough sleepers to take up the help that is on offer. By doing so, it suggests that anyone still sleeping rough is doing so out of choice and is engaged in "persistent anti-social behaviour". Speaking to charities working with homeless people in the area, they tell a different story, pointing out that certain groups such as immigrants are often ineligible for hostel accommodation unless they agree to return to their home countries.
Reasons for the policy apparently include people "fighting" and "spitting on passers-by". That stuff is not cool, but is clearly already illegal. Other parts of the policy seem reasonable on the face of it – like banning people from "defecating in a public place". Except it's not that reasonable when the number of public toilets is in decline and you can't afford to be a customer in a bouji café or a cocktail bar. It's not like anyone's shitting in the street for a laugh.
Other offences are so gloriously vague it would seem almost impossible to avoid breaking them. How long do you have to stand around before it counts as loitering? The council argues that it's not seeking to criminalise homelessness, but would it really be possible for a homeless person to go a day without committing any of these offences? The £1,000 penalty makes the policy as laughable as it is outrageous. In case you missed it, homeless people tend to be a bit short on cash. They might as well ask for payment in magic beans.
So far, despite mounting outrage over the policy, the council has refused to back down. Deputy mayor Sophie Linden published a statement which said Hackney's residents have a "right to live in a safe, non-threatening environment", which raises troubling questions about who decides what's "safe" and "non-threatening", and why homeless people don't also share that right.
Hackney's Public Space Protection Order does the exact opposite of protecting public space. By outlawing the "anti-social", it destroys the social function of our public spaces, where people from all walks of life interact. It's bad enough that our cities are being bought up by corporations with a stronger responsibility to their bottom line than to the poor and disenfranchised, without public authorities going down the same path. Public spaces should be for everyone – not least those who have no private spaces to call their own.
In the opening paragraph of his 2001 book, Tearing Down the Streets, professor Jeff Ferrell wrote: "Something's gone wrong. Something has shifted away, away from what it means to live our lives together in public, away from a sense of the city as an open, inclusive community." Nearly 15 years on, things are still going wrong. And it seems they're only getting worse.
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