Life

Brighton Could Be the First UK City to Pass a 'Homeless Bill of Rights'

The bill isn't a set of policy proposals, but guidance on how local councils should treat the rising issue of homelessness.
02 August 2019, 2:13pm
homeless man brighton
A homeless man in Brighton. Photo: Geoff Smith / Alamy Stock Photo

Over 400,000 people descended on Brighton Pride this weekend for two days of parades and parties. But what most visiting revellers won't realise is that the host city, like much of the UK, remains in the grip of an austerity-driven homelessness crisis.

Government statistics from 2017 stated that Brighton had the highest amount of rough sleepers outside of London – startling news for a city with a population of approximately 280,000 people. It was also in the top ten boroughs for homeless deaths between 2013 and 2017, while the local Clocktower Sanctuary reports a 40 percent increase in young people reporting homelessness in just two years.

Fortunately, there was tentatively positive news last week when local activists presented the UK's first ever Homeless Bill of Rights to Brighton & Hove council. A 13-point guide for the elementary rights of people living on the street, it was well-received by the cross-party council, which voted unanimously to present it to the Housing and New Homes Committee.

"It's not a set of policy proposals," says David Thomas, legal officer for the Brighton and Hove Housing Coalition, the organisation that proposed the bill with 2,475 supporting signatures. "It's looking to change the way that local authorities and the voluntary sector inevitably view homelessness. Instead of a problem to be solved, it's looking at the issue from the position of the homeless person themselves."

The first point on the bill concerns the right to housing. Thomas admits this will be impossible to implement without "a sustained effort from national government over many years" to address a nationwide housing crisis that, as well as rendering at least 320,000 homeless (the majority of whom are in temporary accommodation), means 3.4 million people between 19 and 34 now live with their parents. Brighton – with its influx of Down-From-Londoners and second-homers – has threatened to become Islington-on-Sea in recent years, with rent prices going up 30 percent since 2011, while wages rose just 8 percent in that time.

Second is the right of shelter, or "access to decent emergency accommodation for all homeless people". Jim Deans founded Sussex Homeless Support and converted two buses into temporary accommodation that now sleeps 14 homeless people. Although there are a number of local organisations working tirelessly, Jim's buses are currently the only night shelter in Brighton. He suggests indifference will initially greet the Bill of Rights from those it intends to support.

"They [the homeless population] will take a period of time to accept it," he says. "They have a natural distrust of authority, and one of the biggest things authority has to get over is that lack of trust."

Authorities can make inroads by disregarding any notion of invoking the Vagrancy Act of 1824. Passed to combat increasing numbers of war veterans living on streets following the Napoleonic Wars, it's been repealed by Scotland and Northern Ireland, while Labour and the Green Party have committed to following suit in England and Wales with a Crisis-led campaign putting pressure on the government. Nevertheless, there were 1,320 recorded prosecutions under the Vagrancy Act in England and Wales in 2018. Both David Thomas and Jim Deans admit this archaic law's finer points could be their undoing.

Article 11 of the Homeless Bill of Rights attests to the rights of "survival practices", including begging, which is currently illegal under terms of the Vagrancy Act. "The problem will be the council officials," says Deans. "The legal departments will say the council can't adopt it because parts that will effectively take on the Vagrancy Act."

Thomas also preaches concern, albeit a little more positively: "This is a statement of principles the council is committing itself to work towards, not a policy programme. The police have wide discretion as to which offences they choose to prosecute. If the Council signed the Bill of Rights as it stands, I think it would be committing itself to doing what it can – under Article 11 – to prevent homeless people from being arrested or prosecuted simply for begging."

Elsewhere, the Bill of Rights seeks to enshrine the freedoms people take for granted in a democratic society, including the right to use public space, the right to equal treatment, the right to privacy and the right to respect for personal property. The set of principles was originally drawn up by FEANTSA, a European NGO seeking to end homelessness on the continent. They were inspired by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, which helped introduce a Homeless Bill of Rights in American states like Connecticut and Illinois. Brighton would be one of seven European cities to have passed the bill, including Barcelona. So what effects have been felt in the Catalan city?

"While the endorsement does not solve this complex problem immediately, it sends a clear message to the general public, local policymakers and other local stakeholders that there are other ways to address homelessness," says Maria J Aldanas, Policy Officer at FEANTSA. "It creates a collective dynamic in which cities in the European Union profile themselves as safe places for homeless people."

The irony in the Homeless Bill of Rights potentially coming to Brighton in 2019 is that, according to government figures, rough sleeper numbers in the city actually plummeted from 178 to 64 in just 12 months. "But those numbers are absolute nonsense," says Jim Deans.

There are two methods of counting the homeless population – estimates, based on information from services and agencies, or one-night snapshot counts. Brighton's last snapshot conveniently took place on a snowy night in November of 2018, when street numbers are lowest. According to research by The Guardian, over 30 councils switched their method in 2018, with the likes of Redbridge, Medway and Warwick reporting significant reductions. "There's a fair amount of evidence that, in the government's push to reduce homelessness, they have been pressuring local councils to change from estimates to snapshot counts," says David Thomas.

The decision regarding the Homeless Bill of Rights will be made on the 18th of September. If it passes, what are the chances of it spreading across the country? "Brighton passing the Homeless Bill of Rights would send a strong message of solidarity to people experiencing homelessness around the country," says Shaista Aziz, spokesperson for the Labour Homelessness Campaign, "and a strong signal to other councils that they should follow suit."

@dhillierwrites