In his 1933 essay ‘Why are beggars despised?’, the journalist George Orwell wrote about the attitude many people display towards beggars. ‘People seem to feel that there is some essential difference between beggars and ordinary "working" men,’ he wrote. ‘They are a race apart - outcasts, like criminals and prostitutes.’
An open letter penned last week by Cllr Simon Dudley, leader of the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead, seems to indicate just such an attitude. Addressed to the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for the Thames Valley, Anthony Stansfeld, the letter called on the police to remove homeless people from the streets of Windsor ahead of next May’s royal wedding.
The prospect of homeless people upsetting tourists and undermining local business with their ‘aggressive begging and intimidation’ during a time of national celebration was too much for the Conservative councillor. He wanted the police to flex their muscles and clear the way for visitors eager to see Prince Harry and Meghan Markle wed - an attitude which seems to contrast sharply with Cllr Dudley’s description of Windsor & Maidenhead as a ‘caring, compassionate community’.
As well as the letter’s whiff of elitism, the anger that met it was largely the result of Cllr Dudley’s suggestion people sleep rough out of choice. The council leader says his authority’s work implementing the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP), where the council supplies rough sleepers with a temporary bed during periods of high risk weather, provided him with ‘the evidence that a large number of adults that are begging in Windsor are not in fact homeless, and if they are homeless they are choosing to reject all support services to beg on the streets of Windsor.’
He does not provide this evidence (and none was supplied when I requested it), but it seems highly improbable the London borough is overrun with people voluntarily sleeping on the capital’s streets in winter.
This, at any rate, is the opinion of Greg Beales, the director of communications, policy and campaigns with homelessness charity Shelter. ‘People sleeping on the street don’t do so through choice - they are often at their lowest point, struggling with a range of complex problems and needs and they are extremely vulnerable, at risk from cold weather, illness and even violence,’ he explains.
Rick Henderson, the chief executive of Homeless Link, the national membership charity for frontline homelessness and supported housing organisations, agrees: ‘Our experience tells us that people are not homeless out of choice.’
The other element of the letter that drew everyone’s ire was the idea the borough’s homelessness and begging problem could be dealt with through legal action. ‘The police already have the powers required to deal with this under existing primary legislation,’ Cllr Dudley tells Mr Stansfeld. He urges the PCC to enforce current laws on vagrancy under the Vagrancy Act 1824, and calls for the implementation of Criminal Behaviour Orders for the ‘numerous offenders’.
Again, this heavy handed approach is advised against by charities. Emphasising the fact that people find themselves without a roof over their heads for a vast array of ‘complex’ reasons, Mr Beales of Shelter warned: ‘Stigmatizing or punishing them is totally counter-productive.’
Mr Henderson again agrees. ’Criminalising vulnerable people who are homeless or sleeping rough does nothing to solve the root causes of the problem.’ ‘Ideally,’ he continued, ‘local councils, police, homelessness services and charities should work together to come up with long-term strategies, such as personalised support and assistance into employment.’
While the push back against the council leader’s letter is understandable, it was Theresa May’s response which was the most telling part of the whole affair.
Asked about Cllr Dudley’s remarks during a visit to a hospital in nearby Camberley, Theresa May said she did not agree with them before adding: ‘I think it is important that councils work hard to ensure that they are providing accommodation for those people who are homeless, and where there are issues of people who are aggressively begging on the streets then it's important that councils work with the police to deal with that aggressive begging.’
These remarks shift responsibility for dealing with the country’s homelessness crisis exclusively onto the backs of local authorities and law enforcement. Whitehall is here cleared of any blame. There is no acknowledgement that the crisis itself may stem, at least in part, from central Government policies. Nor is there any acknowledgement that perhaps councils and the police are going to struggle to deal with, say, ‘aggressive begging’ while their budgets are being reduced.
The reality is, however, that Cllr Dudley and Mr Stansfeld are facing a mess created further up the chain of command in Whitehall - a fact a recent report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), in charge of scrutinising the value for money of public spending, makes abundantly clear.
The report found the number of people who sleep rough across the country has risen by 134% since March 2011. According to figures the PAC were supplied with by the homelessness charity Crisis, an estimated 9,100 people were sleeping on the street at any one time in 2016. More than 78,000 households, including over 120,000 children, are also homeless and housed in temporary accommodation - a 60% increase since 2010. While not the same as sleeping on the streets, these latter figures give an idea of the precarious living situations of many people in austerity-struck Britain.
The committee lays much of this at the feet of the Government. Accusing Whitehall of being ‘unacceptably complacent’ in the face of homelessness, the PAC’s chair Meg Hillier said: ‘The latest official figures hammer home the shameful state of homelessness in England and the abject failure of the Government’s approach to addressing the misery suffered by many thousands of families and individuals.’
The committee found, for example, that the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) ignores the impact of the decisions it makes on homelessness numbers and does not work closely enough with other departments to ensure policies do not lead to an increase in people sleeping on the street. It gives the example of the local housing allowance (LHA) freeze where the DCLG and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) worked together but neither assessed the impact these changes had on homelessness.
The Government’s approach to the housing crisis was also another area the PAC picked up on. The report stresses that the lack of genuinely affordable housing is one of the major drivers of the rising homelessness numbers. It recognised that additional funding was made available in the Autumn Budget to enable local authorities to increase the supply of new housing. But it said the DCLG’s plans to target this funding at councils ready to spend it quickly rather than areas with the most acute shortage of housing would lead to many places in need losing out.
These are just two examples given in the PAC report that illustrate the link between Government policy and homelessness. Many more could be provided.
Mrs May can distance herself from the comments of one council leader and pass the buck all she wants to councils and the police. But she cannot distance herself from one of the causes of the homelessness crisis: her Government’s policies.