LONDON — For some 17 years, Christopher Ubsdell was periodically homeless and struggling to survive on the streets of London, often wandering around the Charing Cross area of the British capital. He says that in recent years he has witnessed attitudes hardening toward the poorest people in society.
“What you have is a wide-ranging political agenda across the whole spectrum of government, where they are criminalizing homeless people and criminalizing people on benefits. If anything goes wrong in society they always blame it on the people who cannot defend themselves, and homeless is one of those categories,” the 31-year-old told MintPress.
Ubsdell is greatly concerned over the criminalization of homelessness in Britain. As in parts of the United States, where homeless people are harassed by the authorities via bans on loitering, panhandling and sleeping in public places, the U.K. government seems increasingly intent on making life intolerable for people who do not have a home. The problem is particularly acute in London, where there is little affordable housing at a time when rents are rocketing — a toxic combination that’s forced poorer people onto the streets where life is increasingly fraught.
Crisis, a national charity that helps single homeless people, estimates that 6,508 people slept on the streets of London last year, a rise of 77 percent since 2010.
“Thousands of people are suffering because of cuts to housing benefit and a woeful lack of affordable housing,” Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis, told Mint Press.
Ubsdell knows only too well the travails of an existence on the streets. He was sometimes harassed by police and says he was even awoken during the night for checks. He was moved on four times in a single evening by police, and he reckons they followed his movements using London’s extensive CCTV system. He also recalls once being told to move by an officer during daytime in Villiers Street, Charing Cross, even though he wasn’t begging.
“I was putting myself in a position to beg, according to that policeman,” Ubsdell explains. “It’s part of this anti-social behavior thing that came out when Labour was in power. But now they’ve [the U.K. government] extended the powers with a new law that came out this year.”
Legislating against homelessness
Ubsdell is referring to new legislation introduced by the Conservative-Liberal-Democrat coalition government called the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which went into effect in October. The legislation defines anti-social behavior as, “conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to a person in relation to that person’s occupation of residential premises or conduct capable of causing housing-related nuisance or annoyance to any person.”
The act also contains “Protection Orders.” Essentially, this means that if someone is deemed to be causing a nuisance to others, police can order that person to do (or stop doing) certain actions. If a police officer regards someone to be an annoyance to any person, then the officer can direct that person — even though they are in a public space — “to leave and not return to the locality (or part of the locality) for the period specified in the direction.”
Police can also issue fines and make an arrest if there’s been a breach of such an order. Indeed, a police officer could arrest someone for sitting down if that action was deemed to be an annoyance to others. As a result, that person could be either imprisoned or banned from the area entirely.
This new hard-line approach builds on what appears to be a sustained crackdown on homeless people in recent years. In England and Wales, it is an offense under Section 3 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 and Section 70 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982, to beg in a public space, but in Scotland — which has its own justice system — it is not. In London, the number of people arrested for begging has almost doubled over the last three years.
Based on figures obtained through a Freedom of Information request to the Metropolitan Police, the Pavement, a publication that supports homeless people in Britain, reported in August that 375 people had been arrested and held in custody for begging in the capital in 2011. The following year, the number rose to 514, and in 2013, a total of 700 people were arrested for begging, marking a two-fold increase in just three years.
Karin Goodwin, the Pavement’s managing editor, told MintPress that she is deeply concerned over recent moves toward criminalizing homelessness.
“Criminalization of homelessness is extremely unhelpful, not only for those who find themselves in difficult circumstances but also for society as a whole,” she said. “Instead, we need to work with people to understand why they are on the streets in the first place. If we can offer genuine alternatives that take into account individual circumstances, we can help them to make positive choices about their lives.”
Goodwin said several homeless readers in London had contacted the Pavement in recent months to say they were moved on when they were just sitting on the sidewalk, not begging. In certain areas, she added, local authorities have tried to move soup kitchens out of central locations. Meanwhile in Glasgow, Scotland, homeless people reported being cleared out of the city center by police during the Commonwealth Games in July and August.
Goodwin says the Pavement will be monitoring how local authorities use the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act and, in particular, Protection Orders. These, she said, grant councils unprecedented arbitrary power to ban any behavior they say has a detrimental effect on the “quality of life” in a local area.
Deporting the homeless
There has also been criticism of police operations in London to deport rough sleepers who are not from Britain. Earlier this year, Operations Encompass and Alabama targeted people sleeping on the streets in several parts of London, issuing warnings that they would receive Anti-Social Behaviour Orders. Working with the U.K. Border Agency, local governments and the Metropolitan Police allegedly removed sleeping bags and food from some homeless encampments and issued homeless migrants with notices to leave the country.
Critics of such measures have included the Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (RAMFEL), an organization that works with homeless migrants. Rita Chadha, head of RAMFEL, told MintPress that the police were turning into “immigration control.” She also noted that such sweeps disproportionately affect homeless migrants, who, she estimates, comprise around one-third of all homeless people in the city.
Operation Alabama took place in East London when homeless people sleeping on the streets were warned that legal action would be taken if complaints about them were raised. Operation Encompass began on Jan. 30 and covered six London areas: Camden, Croydon, Islington, Lambeth, Southwark and Westminster.
The Metropolitan Police released a statement in January, saying:
“Under the banner of Operation Encompass, officers and council wardens are working in partnership targeting those who commit such behaviour by concentrating on engaging, disrupting and deterring rough sleeping and begging.
Officers will proactively patrol hot spot areas to speak with those who sleep rough and beg from members of the public. Support will be offered through support services and making arrests where offences are identified.”
However, migrants sleeping on the streets of London are not entitled to the same assistance from the authorities as U.K. citizens. The border control agency, which was also involved in Operation Encompass, said that any non-English homeless people found during operations would be given official notice they would have to leave the United Kingdom. These people would be given three days to provide evidence that they were actively seeking work. If they failed to do so, enforcement papers would be issued to remove them from the country.
“They’re not trying to fix the issue”
Homelessness in the U.K., of course, is not limited to London. According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, between July and September this year, 15,260 homeless households across England were rehoused to different parts of the country. This represented a rise of 123 percent in three years, and prompted criticism from Shelter, the housing charity, which said record numbers of people were being placed in emergency accommodations such as hostels, often far from their previous homes, schools, families and friends.
Shelter also warned that spiralling increases in rent, coupled with caps on housing benefit payments, were making it harder for local governments to find homeless families a decent place to live in their local area.
Against the backdrop of the criminalization of homelessness, Christopher Ubsdell feels extremely fortunate that he is no longer among the many thousands of homeless people in Britain currently enduring a harsh winter. He was given a low-income, government subsidized apartment in May. Although he’s not working yet, he says his life has improved immeasurably.
Still, Ubsdell’s thoughts this Christmas season are on homelessness and the many innocent people in the U.K. considered criminals simply because they are poor.
“They’re not trying to fix the issue. They are scaring people, they are scaring the general public, making them think that homeless people are responsible for crimes that they are not responsible for,” he said, “so it becomes more difficult for homeless people to move on with their lives.”