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Rough sleepers need help, not a criminal record


A London council is trying to fine homeless people up to £1,000 for sleeping in public places. Sam Rowe explains why this isn't going to solve anything...

After hours of broken sleep in a central London doorway – pierced intermittently with the hiss of a bus or stiletto clack on concrete – I woke up with a jolt. Even in my half-asleep haze, I recognised the sound. The odour was familiar too. It was only when something distinctly wet splashed on my sleeping bag that I realised; someone was urinating in the same alcove I’d bedded down in – their hot piss landing just a few inches from my head.

This was in 2011, a harrowing ordeal where I lived on the street-lit roads of England’s capital. Thankfully, it lasted only for 48-hours, spent as part of a magazine feature to shed light on the issue. I ate in shelters, sold The Big Issue and asked passers-by for spare change in Piccadilly Circus, after London Mayor Boris Johnson’s vowed he’d eradicate rough sleeping by 2012.

Boris Johnson lied.

Over three years since his brazen pledge, and not only does rough sleeping still exist under Johnson’s mayorship, numbers have soared year-on-year.

homeless man sleeping in London doorway with dog.

The new law would see homeless people fined up to £1,000 for sleeping rough.

While brief, my own time spent among London’s cardboard underclass only served to reinforce just how rough a deal these individuals get. Many of the homeless men (and women, though mainly men) I encountered confessed to be in a perpetual loop of doorways, drugs, hospitals and prisons, often with no viable escape route available to them. Unless you count committing a crime with the sole intention of being caught just so they didn’t have to brave another cold, dark and lonely night on a street corner, that is.

But, having learned specifically nothing from the barbaric ‘anti-homeless spikes’ briefly installed outside an apartment block in Southwark last year – and the global outrage that inevitably followed – Hackney Council has launched a new rule that sees rough sleepers charged if they’re caught having so much as a nap in public.

The Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) will give police and council officials power to stop activities deemed ‘antisocial’ – such as sleeping rough or begging – with those found doing so forced to pay a £100 fixed penalty notice, or else fined to the tune of £1,000.

Of course, as a fully functioning human being you’re already aware that homeless people do not tend to carry wads of cash around in their pockets. However, just in case you’re not a fully functioning human being (or happen to work for a particular council in the London Borough of Hackney) – they really don’t. Largely on account of the fact they don’t necessarily have wallets. Or bank accounts. Or homes.

This law represents an ethically nauseating move that reduces a desperate act into a criminal one, and is yet another aggressive solution to a genuine and complex social issue. A bit like putting down metal spikes to stop vulnerable people from gaining brief respite from their dire situation, or curing an itchy scalp with a loaded shotgun.

homeless man in a wheelchair

80 per cent of homeless people suffer mental health issues, with one in four admitting to problems with drug addiction.

In a recent survey, 80 per cent of homeless people surveyed reported mental health issues, with one in four admitting to either suffering from or being in recovery from drug addiction. Countless others have haunting pasts of violence, abuse, or simply no place to go.

Such downtrodden individuals do not deserve a criminal record, but a helping hand instead. Perhaps something like, I don’t know, help towards an actual home of their own, not an exorbitant charge they could never afford because they haven’t got one?

Thankfully, the good people of the Internet (God bless them) have temporarily stopped Photoshopping Sepp Blatter into scenes from The Shawshank Redemption to show their solidarity, with over 57,000 people signing a petition opposing the law in just five days.

Should you want to join them, you can do so here, or else Hackney might soon be known as the centre of the universe for both hipster culture and human rights abuse.

Regardless of your opinion towards fixie-bikes, or vagrancy, surely we can all agree one is most definitely a bigger crime against humanity than the other.

Follow Sam Rowe on Twitter




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