In 2017, the 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act will see its 40th anniversary. This Act was passed into law by a Labour Government. The effect of this was to ensure that councils had a legal duty to house homeless people who met relevant criteria.
This piece of legislation remains with us now and has been responsible for saving tens of thousands of people from the devastation and terrible consequences of being homeless. Though a huge step forwards, the bill did not end homelessness.
Homelessness and rough sleeping has sharply increased since 2010, under Labour homelessness fell by 62% between 1998 and 2010, the number of families who meet homeless criteria has now risen by a third since 2010 and rough sleeping has doubled over the same period.
The current Government’s answer to this surge in homelessness has not been to address the root causes of homelessness or invest in services that help people off the streets and into employment instead they have cut these support services, introduced policies that drive people into poverty and demonised those on our streets perpetuating the ideological myth that to end up on the streets is a personal failing not the result of complex and structural factors often beyond a person’s control.
The reality is anyone of us could become homeless, loss of a job, breakdown in family relationships, limited funds, no family or friends to turn to can lead to people being on the streets. Care leavers, former members of the armed forces, people with poor physical and mental health are also among our growing homeless population.
In 2014 the Coalition Government introduced public space protection orders, under these orders certain behaviours can be outlawed in an area specified by a local Council, and a fine attached to that behaviour. Most people would agree with this concept if it were to stop people from causing a disturbance or harm to people.
But in Shields both the Town Centre and Chichester area have been designated as areas were ‘begging’ is to be prevented. For the purposes of clarity this reads as ‘Making verbal, non verbal or written requests, including the placing of hats or containers for money, donation or goods in a Restricted Area’, in short if you give money or food to a homeless person when they are simply sitting their quietly they could get a warning letter handed to them and a potential fine of £100, which could rise to £1,000 if the case goes to court. No one who is going through the daily degradation and shame of living on the streets has £100 spare.
I accept that the legislation is there to enable local authorities to be able to formally address unwanted behaviour in our communities. However, I would implore them, as many other areas have done, to think again and see these orders in relation to homeless people for their punitive nature. Many people in Shields have already approached me outraged vowing they will continue to give, as I will, to anyone they see struggling in the borough.