Police arrest a homeless person. Credit: Demotix/Terry Scott
Around the corner there are two police officers, one taking notes and the other looking through a man’s backpack.
The man has a look of exhausted despair, sitting next to a cashpoint with blankets wrapped over his legs. A cup of loose change sits next to him.
Perhaps my work has made me cynical through experience, but I immediately assume he’s being targeted by the police for being homeless. Arrested, fined, banned from the area, or if he’s really lucky, given a verbal warning – these are the options awaiting the man asking for my spare change in the mornings.
Most people don’t get to see, or don’t care to see, all the intricacies of the lives of people sleeping on the streets. Judgement is often swiftly passed on them by the general public, politicians and law enforcement officials. But the stories I have had heard show histories, ambitions, and the power of resilience.
Many urban centres are criminalizing homelessness. They are banning begging, making it illegal for groups to provide free food to rough sleepers, confiscating blankets or tents, and prosecuting people for ‘loitering’.
Now my resident city of London is expanding its Operation Encompass initiative, following fast in suit.
Operation Encompass aims to “engage, disrupt and deter” people who are begging on the streets or sleeping rough. Already lauded as a “great success”, it is jointly run by the Metropolitan Police and the UK Border Agency. Soon it will be rolled out into five more London boroughs.
Alongside this increasing criminalization, there is more street homelessness. 6,437 people in London were recorded as being rough sleepers between 2012 and 2013, a number that has more than doubled over the last two years.
Criminalizing homelessness perpetuates cycles of vulnerability and ostracization. I work with LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) young people in London who have experienced violence and are at risk of homelessness.
Research suggests that around 7-30% of homeless people in urban areas in the UK identify as LGBTQ. By comparison LGBTQ people represent around 10% of the general population.
The statistics, however, are limited in scope and accuracy. What I see are peoples' realities.
When I see police disrupting rough sleepers I remember life stories. A young man with scars from when he was beaten by strangers when sleeping on the pavement, after his family kicked him out of the house for being gay. The trans woman who contemplated suicide when there was no space for her in a hostel. The bisexual woman leaving an abusive relationship who wanders the streets all night because she has nowhere to go, because she’s afraid of what will happen if she falls asleep during the dark and long hours of winter.
These are people who deserve to be protected, not persecuted.
Homelessness is complex, and experiencing it can be compounded by multiple experiences of discrimination. Current thinking suggests the link between mental health and homelessness is two way: a person is more likely to become homeless as a result of having mental health issues, and homeless people are more likely to develop mental health issues as a result of the harsh living conditions.
LGBTQ people are more likely to experience mental health problems and substance misuse issues: this is especially true of the homeless LGBTQ population. Rates of mental health issues are especially high for bisexual people and transgender people.
Many LGBTQ people will also experience discrimination on the grounds of their class background, ethnicity, nationality, and dis/ability. Some will be fleeing violence in their homes, schools, workplaces, religious institutions, or in their intimate relationships.
Criminalization initiatives gain impetus from the stigmatising of homeless people. Many of the housed population are uncomfortable with seeing homeless people, being confronted by destitution on the doorsteps to their workplaces and shopping malls. We prefer to avert our eyes.
Defending criminalization, London’s Westminster Councillor Nickie Aiken says: “These [street homeless] people leave behind a huge mess which residents and home owners have to clean up, which just isn’t fair”.
This perception of homeless people as blights on an urban landscape gives license to laws that sweep homeless people from the sight of the general public.
If not a nuisance, homeless people are depicted as anti-social and violent, a construction bound up in stigma. In reality, homeless people are more likely to be victims/survivors of violent crime from the general public. The misperception of homeless people as dangerous perpetuates violence against them and can only exist in a society where the government treats rough sleepers like criminals.
Despite disproportionately high levels of LGBTQ homelessness, LGBTQ communities often fail to tackle homeless issues. Specialist campaigns and support services exist but they don’t get nearly the amount of media attention or funding as is allocated towards more celebratory images of LGBTQ life, like same-sex marriage campaigns.
LGBTQ communities and allies need to make political challenges that do not simply support LGBTQ people in the financial mainstream, but that assist LGBTQ people whose essential safety is at risk. Instead of subjecting homeless people to heightened policing, we ought to lobby governments to intervene at an earlier stage, to ensure there is available and suitable accommodation for people seeking it.
The concerns I have about the criminalization approach are multiple: the first is that criminalizing people may be more likely to entrench their homelessness. With a criminal record it could be more difficult for people to gain access to jobs, accommodation and improved immigration status.
Secondly, criminalizing homelessness can make rough sleepers more vulnerable to abuse, as they are less likely to seek protection from police officers if they fear arrest or deportation.
Thirdly, we cannot expect that criminalization will deter people from sleeping on the streets. Many people do not have access to safe accommodation either because there is no space in hostels or because of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in the hostel system. Austerity measures, unemployment, lack of access to health care, little or no public funds for many immigrants, are all contributory factors towards homelessness.
Instead of criminalizing or deporting homeless people, LGBTQ or otherwise, we should be working with them to develop services and options that are suitable and safe. More money and initiatives could be put into preventing all homelessness and supporting LGBTQ people specifically.
Let’s approach homelessness as a structural issue over which we will not avert our eyes and look the other way. We need to resist the downward spiral of marginalisation through criminalisation. We should demand homes, not jails.