Why we’ll risk becoming criminals to give out tents to homeless people

Why we’ll risk becoming criminals to give out tents to homeless people

in partnership with Peace & Justice ProjectSeason of Hope
As the Home Secretary threatens to criminalise them and many like them, grassroots group Streets Kitchen explain why they will continue their vital support work.

It came as no surprise to us when the Home Secretary Suella Braverman cast her evil gaze towards those experiencing homelessness this weekend. The Conservative MP for Fareham declared those forced to sleep on the streets as merely exercising a ‘lifestyle choice’ in a series of tweets about new legislation allegedly designed to curb the growing homelessness crisis. According to the Home Secretary tents were to be seen as public nuisances rather than striking visual reminders of the failures of successive governments in tackling the housing crisis.

Just last week a cross-party group of local authority leaders in England has begged Chancellor Jeremy Hunt for an immediate cash injection of £100m for local councils after spending between a fifth and half of their total available annual financial resources to cope with a rapid explosion in homelessness and the cost of temporary accommodation.

London is facing the most severe homelessness challenge in the country. Whilst rough sleeping is the most visible, there are an estimated 170,000 homeless Londoners living in temporary accommodation.This equates to one in 50 residents of the capital and includes one in every 23 children.

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Last year, according to the Museum Of Homelessness ’Dying Homeless Project’, 1,313 people died whilst experiencing homelessness, an 85% increase on the numbers recorded three years earlier. Most of these unnecessary deaths were among people living in emergency housing or hostels, with 83% of deaths taking place when the person was in some form of accommodation. Temporary Accommodations are commonly unacceptable solutions. With their lack of support and critical Health and Safety issues, they can be dangerous places for many people.

Streets Kitchen started in London almost 10 years ago and today we are witnessing a vast increase in the numbers of people we meet on outreach. We, as a group of volunteers, are out on the streets of the city seven days a week, sharing food & hot drinks and essential simple supplies in solidarity with people currently experiencing homelessness. We go out with as many sleeping bags and tents as we can get our hands on. We have to decide often who, out of all the people we meet, will get one, including when severe weather emergency protocol (SWEP) has eventually been activated by some councils (meaning there is a very realistic threat to life sleeping on the streets). Even then, when their purpose is to save people from hypothermia and potential death, we see those precious tents and personal possessions being confiscated/taken away.

In Kilburn (NW London) we are sharing over 180 meals on any given night, with individuals and families visiting our table. On our morning outreaches in Camden, we share over 120 breakfasts with people sleeping on the streets. All our Streets Kitchens across London are seeing rising numbers of desperate people forced to access our services, every week we feed thousands of people across the capital.

Last year 1,313 people died whilst experiencing homelessness.

According to the Museum Of Homelessness ’Dying Homeless Project’.

We keep on meeting new people, discharged from hospitals, or straight out of overcrowded prisons, with no support. We expect to see more and more from the fallout of the government's handling of the asylum backlog, with broken & vulnerable people now given seven days to leave Home Office accommodation. In that time they are expected to apply for benefits, find a job, a place to stay. An impossible task. The British Red Cross, not known for wild speculation, has warned that more than 50,000 refugees could be made homeless by the end of the year if the Government doesn't take urgent steps to support them as it clears the asylum backlog.

Once you end up on the streets, you are there for a while, regardless of your age, sex & your physical or mental health. You must be ‘verified’ as a rough sleeper in order to receive any kind of support, which means you need to be witnessed bedding down for at least one night by already over stretched outreach teams, working for or commissioned by councils who have had their funding cut to the bone and are critically short of staff.

The result of this formula is vulnerable people waiting for days and nights, not able to move away from a sleeping spot to go to the bathroom, or escape the rain, or abuse, waiting to be ‘verified’. While you are forced to wait outside, in potentially treacherous conditions, it makes a tent a life saving measure, not a lifestyle choice.

Even once ‘verified’ you are in for a long wait, with an acute lack of accommodation, you can be waiting on the streets for weeks or months. According to last year’s Women Census, at least 154 women were sleeping rough in London every week, still an under-representation of the true scale. Life on the streets is particularly dangerous for women as they need to hide more than men, in order to protect themselves. Just another example of a situation where, far from being a lifestyle choice, a tent is vital to the safety of a person.

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What we have been seeing first hand over the years, is the constant and ever increasing criminalisation of homelessness, within a broken system. From hostile architecture, where safer sleeping spots have been filled with spikes to stop people from bedding down, to illegal ‘Notices to Leave' left by Transport For London all around Euston and Warren Street. The first we noticed of these was placed right above the bed of a young pregnant woman.

There's also the use of Community Protection Notices, illegally displacing people from the comparative safety of their community.

It is a constant battle, fighting to keep people alive in a failing system which has no respect for people’s rights. A system which uses its power to criminalise people for being failed by society. Last year, the government committed to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824, which makes it an offence to sleep rough, yet we are still seeing the police using the Act to arrest and move people on with no news of when this archaic law will finally be removed.

A consultation has been launched to put in place replacement legislation, with an emphasis on ensuring that police powers to ‘protect communities’, are not weakened. There is no emphasis on caring for the community and protecting individuals rights. The government’s commitment to end homelessness in 2024 is absurd, their narrative and approach is increasingly based around creating more legislation and tools to criminalise.

Put simply, homelessness is a political choice. We all saw during the COVID epidemic quite rightly a concerted attempt to get ‘everyone in’. The effort proves that with the right political motivation and funding no one needs to sleep on our streets. The three-year freeze on the local housing allowance (LHA), which determines the amount of housing benefit private renters can receive, means it has been stuck at the same level since March 2020, based on rents in 2019. Many people can simply not afford to rent privately as the cost of new rents has gone up by at least 25% while housing benefit has stayed frozen. This must be changed along with an urgent commitment to build truly affordable housing.

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Along with many groups across the UK we will continue to attempt, in very challenging circumstances, to bring some small relief to those experiencing homelessness on our streets. If the Tories wish to make us criminals for our actions so be it, we stand ready, unjust laws are made to be broken.

Along with the Tories, Suella, and her headline grabbing right wing rhetoric, needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history as soon as possible. We can but hope that any incoming Labour administration will attempt to better support those experiencing homelessness. Though, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s silence on homeless issues in his own constituency of Camden and elsewhere is not inspiring us with any confidence.

We urgently need you to assist us and all the local groups who are attempting to make that small difference by getting involved and volunteering. We have also just launched an urgent financial appeal as we find ourselves struggling to survive with this Tory made cost of living crisis. More and more people need our assistance, please help us reach them.

This article is part of the Season of Hope, a series run in partnership with the Peace & Justice Project.

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