Every rough sleeper is the product of political decisions. Stop criminalising them

Dawn Foster
‘No one wants to sleep outdoors in sub-zero temperatures, but far too many will.’ Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock

It’s impossible to spend any stretch of time outside at the moment without noticing two things: the bitter cold and the seemingly unstinting rise in street homelessness. Winter is always the hardest period for rough sleepers because of the climate and the post-Christmas dip in generosity towards anyone begging. And there’s a genuine risk to life for anyone having to sleep out as temperatures plummet. The rise in tents appearing in Leeds, Manchester, all over London, and in many towns and cities across the country is an attempt to stave off the cold and sleep more safely.

Homelessness is allowed to happen, and rough sleepers are then demonised

Rough sleepers may find it comes at a cost, though. More than one in 10 councils have been found to use legislative powers to create public space protection orders, which means behaviour can be criminalised in certain areas. The powers are usually used to combat visible street homelessness: recent examples include Windsor, the borough castigated for seeking to clear homeless people out of the area to make way for the royal wedding, which proposes to fine people £100 on the spot for begging, leaving bedding in public or requesting money, and Stoke-on-Trent’s consultation on whether to fine people sleeping in car parks and doorways. Under a PSPO, anyone who fails to pay a £100 penalty could face a summary conviction and a £1,000 fine. Meanwhile, Westminster council has asked wealthier homeowners to pay a voluntary “tax” of around £833 to fund projects to help young people and combat the homelessness problem in the borough.

These initiatives come at the problem differently, but both start at the endpoint: by the time someone is on the streets, many opportunities to prevent their homelessness have been missed. The reason rough sleeper numbers have risen 169% since 2010 is because of a perfect storm created by this government: welfare cuts to individuals; austerity measures starving councils of resources; and now the rollout of universal credit, which has increased evictions and shrunk the amount of support available for peoplebefore or after they lose their home.

Focusing only on street homelessness is resource-intensive, and acts after the rough sleeper has already endured significant hardship and trauma. Acting before people are homeless makes far more sense, economically and for the long-term wellbeing of a household. Yet the rights of the landlord to collect rent are always put ahead of the person about to lose a roof over their head.

Supporting people to stay in their homes is surely a better method of reducing homelessness than acting after the fact. Homelessness is allowed to happen, and rough sleepers are then demonised: the public told not to offer change lest you feed a habit; homeless people abused or attacked in public, and then criminalised by councils and the police, as though a few legal threats will convince someone to stop sleeping in a tent in a park and instead rent a studio flat nearby.

It remains incredibly hard to get off the streets once you begin sleeping rough. For too long the government has behaved as though homeless people appear from nowhere. Every rough sleeper is the product of political decisions that have created a safety net riddled with gaping holes. No one wants to sleep outdoors in sub-zero temperatures, but far too many will, while politicians continue to cut welfare provision and bludgeon councils with austeritymeasures.