Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, recently introduced legislation aiming to ban tramps and homeless people from city centres and the streets. This move has ignited a heated debate regarding its impact on vulnerable individuals who lack support, money, and who already struggle to survive.
What does this move say about the empathy displayed by our government towards those who need help and support?
Sunak’s new legislation allows authorities to criminalise rough sleeping. It effectively empowers them to remove homeless individuals from where they are typically deemed a ‘nuisance’, e.g. city centres, etc. This approach raises ethical questions, and charity bosses have likened it to ‘punishing the poor’. They’re calling for more support towards combating the root causes of homelessness rather than treating people who don’t have anywhere to go as criminals.
Part of the battle with people begging on the street, which the government is choosing not to address, is that a good number are part of organised criminal gangs. Taking away/imprisoning the person begging for money on the frontline will not eradicate the problem in the slightest—they’ll just be replaced by another gang member.
Moving the homeless from our city centres is simply about the geography—it won’t change anything. Even if they were arrested for begging, they’ll revert back to doing so on their release, as they have no other way to survive. The government has systematically removed support centres, funding and effective solutions to the problems that tend to lead to homelessness.
We all know that, with any problem, prevention is better than the cure. Ensuring early intervention when someone is suffering from a physical or mental problem can stop the downwards spiral that’s so difficult to come back from. Yet it’s this support that the Conservatives have systematically withdrawn, then they wonder why people live on the streets. It’s so often not a choice.
Sunak’s move places an additional burden on the police, who may find themselves involved in an enforcement role rather than helping needy individuals access the support they require. I’m quite sure that resources would be better allocated towards providing housing and social services to address homelessness effectively than paying the police to bully vulnerable people into their cells.
Homelessness is often a result of complex issues, such as unemployment, mental health challenges, and a lack of affordable housing. Sunak is incredibly short-sighted not to recognise that the Conservatives’ austerity measures, poor management of the economy and lack of appropriate taxation of huge conglomerates are contributing factors to local councils having to cut funding to many frontline services that would help and support those on the street to reintegrate into society.
In areas where there are still services that the homeless and vulnerable can access, these tend to be in the city centre. Services such as food banks, healthcare and outreach programmes tend to be well-situated for footfall and ease of access, rather than being tucked away in a rural hamlet somewhere. This in itself gives the homeless legitimate reason to be in the centre. Making it an offence to be in such populated areas will prevent people in need accessing services they desperately need to survive. By banning their presence in city centres, the government may hinder their access to vital support systems, including mental health services, addiction treatment, and job assistance programmes. This restriction could impede their ability to rebuild their lives and break free from the cycle of homelessness.
Though we don’t like to think of it, the homeless are actually safer in city centres than scattered through back streets or in rural settings. If the police were to take to the streets, they’d be more likely to walk through a city centre. Even during the early hours, there are people kicking about well-lit, well-populated areas–which can bring a certain level of safety to people sleeping rough. Sunak’s ban may force them into hidden or makeshift camps, increasing their vulnerability to crime and exacerbating their already precarious living conditions.
I’ve never expected empathy to be shown by a Conservative minister, but this decision by Sunak's government against those in need truly shows the government’s callousness and self-serving attitude.
Chief executive of Crisis, Matt Downie, said life on the streets is a ‘traumatic, dangerous and dehumanising’ struggle to survive. He adds, ‘While we need to see the full details, labelling destitute people a nuisance and threatening to move people on is not the answer to tackling rough sleeping. It’s incredibly disappointing to see the government resorting to this rhetoric at a time when rough sleeping numbers are once again surging as the rising cost of living pushes more people into poverty.’
The Vagrancy Law was already in place for any reported nuisances on our streets. There was no need for Sunak to take things further, and it certainly doesn’t show our government in a good light.