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Holidays, poetry and the rights of the homeless


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Last summer my family and I did the full American road trip. Well just a smidge of the east coast but we embraced the culture, pursued the American dream and our exceptional holiday culminated with four days in New York.

The Big Apple was amazing, truly the city that never sleeps. We visited the Empire State Building, Central Park, the museum from Night at the Museum; the whole shebang. Well, excluding the Statue of Liberty. You can see it through binoculars from the 9/11 memorial and none of us fancied the overpriced ferries across the choppy Hudson river.

If we had have sailed over to old Lady Liberty we may have read Emma Lazarus’ poem inscribed on the plinth beneath her:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

“Send these the homeless,” It’s funny, New York City is famous for its high homeless population but whilst I was dawdling through Manhattan Island I don’t seem to remember seeing a single person sleeping rough. In Boston, I can vividly recall a woman screaming at one homeless man, “Why the fuck did you just call me a cheating whore?!” It was odd (welcome to Massachusetts) but not NYC. The Empire City seemed sans les sans-abris, without those who are without.

Birmingham, England on the other hand… I was back in my hometown over Christmas and landed a neat little holiday job. But during every journey into the city centre my route seemed to be lined with the cold and the hungry. They were outside New Street Station and down Navigation Street like a chilling guard of honour for all those Brummies commuting to work.

Maybe I was too naive or optimistic in the past but the problem has undoubtedly exacerbated. It’s nationwide too. Travelling through Salford daily brings about an awkward passing of a multitude of homeless. They, like in the second city, sit shrewdly, shuffling from cheek to cheek, their knees and hands crudely patched in leather, all their belongings draped across there folded legs. The same story is repeated from Falmouth to Fife, Norwich to Newport an ongoing exposure to those less fortunate than ourselves.

So what’s the solution, the answer to the rough sleeping epidemic?

More shelters for starters, greater awareness, and cheaper homes are also valid propositions. One suggestion that I read, however, from someone who should know better, left a sour taste in my mouth. Simon Dudley, council leader for Windsor (soon to be the location of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in May) called for Thames Valley police to use their powers under existing laws – citing the 1824 Vagrancy Act (criminalising rough sleeping and begging) and the 2014 Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act to simply remove the vagrants and destitute off the streets.

His reasoning, in a letter dated 2 January and addressed to Anthony Stansfeld, the police and crime commissioner for Thames Valley which was acquired by the Guardian: “Obviously, the level of tourist interest is set to multiply with the royal wedding in May 2018, and there are increased concerns from our residents about their safety. The whole situation also presents a beautiful town in a sadly unfavourable light.”

How silly, how pompous, how inexplicably ignorant.

Dudley’s suggestion of forcefully yet legally eradicating homeless people from the streets to reverse the ‘negative’ motif of an area, overlooks two fundamental issues. Firstly the equality act of 2010 legally protecting all from discrimination, not just in the workplace but in wider society too.

Homeless people have a right to sit on a bench, to drink, to eat, to sleep in public, not because they are uniquely vulnerable, but because they are equal; because they have as much right to be in a public space as anyone else. Put simply, if they are not committing an offence, then they should be left to go about their business.

The second misunderstanding from Dudley comes from his assumption that homelessness is a decision. In his letter, he writes: “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 ... In the case of homelessness amongst this group, it is therefore a voluntary choice.”

The majority have had their nomadic lifestyle forced upon them. Those in the direst of straits are the very young. At 18, the homeless who have “moved on” are entitled to the income support and housing benefits that Dudley describes, but those under 18 have access to no benefit of any kind and are most vulnerable to prostitution and the doubtful numbing comforts of alcohol and drugs.

The Government's response that these young people should not have left home and should return to it, is shockingly unrealistic; various charities depict tales of family rows beyond reconciliation at the ages of 11 onwards. One story of a boy nearly killed by his father at the age of 12, one of a boy consistently abused by both parents until taken into care (sometimes an even worse fate), one thrown out by his stepfather at 15 and one fleeing from youth custody at 12. These are the rejects of society; damaged working class children, with little education, fleeing intolerable stress.

Simon Dudley is expected to survive a no-confidence motion on Monday. More than 274,000 people have signed an online petition calling for Dudley to withdraw his demand for police action and “offer a suitable long-term solution for these people”. I haven’t signed it yet, I was more perplexed trying to fathom why I didn’t see any homeless people in New York. I get that there are shelters but where do you go if you reject external help? I’m none the wiser, if you have any ideas do let me know.

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