‘We are far more concerned with people dying than we are with being fined’: Punitive measures proposed by the Home Secretary will not deter charities from providing tents to rough sleepers in East London.
Tower Hamlets homelessness charities have condemned Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s ‘bewildering and inhumane’ comments branding homelessness as a ‘lifestyle choice.’
The announcement, made by Braverman on Saturday 4 November in a series of posts on X, said that the government would support people who are genuinely homeless, but added: ‘We cannot allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents occupied by people, many of them from abroad, living on the streets as a lifestyle choice.
‘What I want to stop, and what the law abiding majority wants us to stop, is those who cause nuisance and distress to other people by pitching tents in public spaces, aggressively begging, stealing, taking drugs, littering, and blighting our communities.’
Braverman’s plan would introduce penalties in the new Criminal Justice Bill for England and Wales for homeless people who authorities believe have rejected offers of help.
It would also include civil penalties for charities that supply tents to rough sleepers identified by police as having caused a nuisance.
Tony Chasteaneuf, the CEO of Spitalfields Crypt Trust (SCT) homelessness and addiction charity in Tower Hamlets said: ‘People hardly have a right to a house, a home, or a roof over their heads at the moment and now they don’t even have a right to a canvas to sleep under.
‘It’s remarkable how short people’s memories are. Not so long ago we were praising charities on the frontline during the pandemic supporting those at crisis points in our communities and now we’re criminalising those people and the charities helping them.’
The Criminal Justice Bill was set to be heard in the House of Commons this week but is said to have been delayed due to debate over the tents issue. Downing Street said it would not speculate on whether the proposal would eventually be included in the Criminal Justice Bill.
Peter Golds, Tower Hamlets’ only Conservative Councillor for Island Gardens, said: ‘The [Home Secretary’s] statement is misconceived. Many rough sleepers have mental health issues, others are victims of domestic abuse and there are discharged service personnel who find themselves homeless. These are not lifestyle choices, they are personal tragedies.’
Providence Row homelessness charity in Whitechapel released a statement saying that criminalising people sleeping rough is ‘wrong and unacceptable,’ and that the Home Secretary should withdraw her words immediately.
According to the latest Chain figures from the Greater London Authority (GLA), rough sleeping in London is the highest it’s been since records began, with 4,068 people spotted on the streets between July and September 2023.
During this time, 185 homeless people were counted in Tower Hamlets, rising from 138 during the previous quarter.
According to Liz Marshall, Director of Fundraising at SCT, these reports are likely to be a slight underestimation as homeless women will often hide and be out of sight for safety reasons.
Data for 2022/23 shows that Tower Hamlets has the seventh-highest homeless population of the London boroughs, with Westminster recording by far the largest number of people sleeping rough.
In response to the proposed changes, Chasteaneuf said: ‘They won’t change anything that we [SCT] do. We are far more concerned with people dying than we are with being fined, but it will make the work we do a lot more difficult.
‘People are driven into more isolated places through punitive legislation and that is exactly what causes homelessness in the first place.’
Just days after the Home Secretary’s inflammatory comments, London Councils released a new study that found 6000 private renters in London are at risk of becoming homeless in the next six years if the Government doesn’t lift the freeze on the Local Housing Allowance (LHA).
LHA payments are made to people on low incomes, intended to provide help towards covering some housing costs. However, rates have been frozen since 2020 and have become inadequate to cover rising housing costs.
The research, carried out by Alma Economics suggests that restoring LHA to cover at least 30% of local market rents would save the public finances in London more than £100m each year.
According to London Councils, most of the savings would come from reduced pressure on homelessness services, and from lower costs to the NHS and social care.
Chasteaneuf says: ‘We are slipping back into the nineteenth century and unravelling some of our most fundamental understandings of healthcare and even slipping back into this very dangerous rhetoric of the deserving and undeserving poor.’
As well as homelessness services and addiction recovery programmes, SCT runs two social enterprises and eight charity shops across East London.
These community spaces are based on the principle that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to homelessness and it takes an entire community to progress through recovery.
Chasteaneuf sees Braverman’s comments as a particularly dark moment in the fight against homelessness, flying directly in the face of SCT’s mission.
He says: ‘The hatred being stroked by this rhetoric breaks community bonds and is breaking humanity … it is exactly this frame of mind that causes othering, isolation and homelessness.’
SCT is not council or government-funded which allows the charity to build a recovery community that values the importance of creativity and innovation, including gardening, poetry evenings, and other arts-based recovery programmes.
‘People sometimes say to us that we don’t have a sustainable stream of income because it is based on fundraising, but money isn’t sustainable because you spend it.
‘There is sustainability in community ownership and building a recovery community that people trust and come back to and play an active role in.’
Despite the surge in rough sleeping and the sector’s uncertainty about the Criminal Justice Bill, the staff at SCT and other charities are transforming lives on a day-to-day basis, and Chasteaneuf has not given up hope in the work they are doing.
He says: ‘In the long term what changes people is relationships, and these relationships have to be balanced and reciprocal and you have to allow yourself to be transformed by the people you are helping.’
If you enjoyed reading this piece, find our article about Islah Abdur-Rahman’s short film tackling youth violence in Tower Hamlets.
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