Monday 21 March 2011

Homeless Need Help Not Handcuffs

Yesterday, I attended and spoke at a protest organised by faith groups aiming to stop the criminalisation of soup runs for homeless people in Westminster. The City Council proposes to bring in a bye-law which aims to ban volunteers and charities from providing food for the homeless in the area. They also plan to make it an offense to sleep rough. Those people that attempt to give a homeless person a sandwich or hot drink will be given a £500 fine. Some volunteers tell me they will go to jail rather than pay the fine or stop helping the homeless.

The Conservative run council says it’s dealing with the anti-social nature of having homeless people on the streets. If that’s the case, this is the wrong solution. The right solution is to recognise that over 80% of people who find themselves living on the streets have some form of mental health issue. Homeless people need support. That means they need expertly trained people to go out and find rough sleepers on the streets. As a first step they then need safe, clean refuges where they will be guaranteed to be secure from physical attack and theft. Then they need help addressing the issues that put them onto the streets in the first place and encouragement and support to move their lives forward. There are many excellent charities, social entrepreneurs and government bodies that do this. There’s one problem though - it’s expensive compared to the options Westminster and Hammersmith and Fulham Councils have come up with.

It’s obviously far cheaper to close down and sell off homeless hostels, tighten the homeless acceptance criteria, stop funding homeless charities, consistently cut the homeless budget and ban homeless shelters as the Conservatives have done in my own Borough in Hammersmith and Fulham. 

Westminster Conservatives are slashing £5million from funding hostels. By combining this with their attempt to criminalise the homeless and those that help them they clearly hope to disperse rough sleepers so they are out of the sight of the rest of us.

Most experts will tell you that there are increases in the number of homeless people during and economic slow down such as the one we're in now. The cuts to housing benefit are likely to make this many times worse. So the draconian measures being taken against rough sleepers indicates the level of cynicism behind these policies.

I believe the attacks on the homeless by Westminster and H&F Conservatives demean the nature of our civilised society. People who have suffered a crisis that has turned them into a rough sleeper need help not handcuffs. I have tremendous respect for the homeless campaigners such as Sock Mob Events, Housing Justice and Streetlytes for being amongst those that organised yesterday's event and indeed for all those that seek to amplify the voice of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

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