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Birds in the sky

December 02 2014
We’re criminalising homelessness without even knowing it

We’re criminalising homelessness without even knowing it, argues a former rough sleeper.

I know I’m not the only one to be shocked by a story that broke last month about the arrest of Pastor Arnold Abott and two other pastors of Fort Lauderdale in Florida, who were doing nothing more sinister then feeding some of the estimated 10,000 homeless people in the city. They were arrested under a law that also outlawed sleeping on public property and panhandling.

But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. These arrests are part of a growing trend in towards harsher ways of dealing with people and activities that are interrupting an economic agenda. It seems those who have no ability to consume are being ever more marginalised.

Monitoring this is the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), based in Washington DC. Earlier this year, they reported dramatic increases in the criminalisation of homelessness based on a survey of 187 American cities. They found a 60 per cent increase on city-wide bans on ‘camping in public’, a 35 per cent increase in bans on loitering and vagrancy, and bans on begging increased by 25 per cent.

A survey of 1,600 homeless people – conducted by the Western Regional Advocacy Project and included in the same report – found that 80 per cent reported being harassed by the police for sleeping in public and 25 per cent had been arrested for sitting or lying down.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, the UK has introduced new measures to curb anti-social behaviour that are aimed at cleaning up our cities and making our communities nicer places to live. The Anti-social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014 states that anti-social behaviour is “conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to a person in relation to that person’s occupation of residential premises or conduct capable of causing housing-related nuisance or annoyance to any person”.

The Act also contains what the government has euphemistically named Protection Orders. Essentially, that means if you are deemed to be causing a nuisance to those around you, you can be ordered to do (or stop doing) certain things by the police.

Sound fair enough? The problem is suddenly we are at the mercy of the personal opinions of another. If a police officer regards you to be an annoyance to any person then they can direct a person who is in a public place to “leave and not return to the locality (or part of the locality) for the period specified in the direction”.

They can issue fixed penalty notices and of course can arrest for a breach. A police officer could arrest someone for sitting in the streets if it was deemed to be an annoyance to others, and as a result that person could be either imprisoned or banned from the area.

Think about this for a second: homeless people could be forced to breach the orders because they have nowhere else to go.

To me, banning homeless people form the streets is like banning birds from the sky.

The Act goes on: a police officer with the rank of inspector, or a local authority, has the power to shut down premises that “is likely soon to result, in nuisance to members of the public, or that there has been disorder near, associated with the use of those premises”.

How does that affect shelters and day centre? Does it mean they could be shut down if they cause a nuisance with drugs or noise? Can you imagine an organisation concerned with homeless issues that doesn’t have these problems?

During my time on the streets, I was stopped and checked by the police several times. I’ve also been woken during the night for these checks, and moved on by the police from sleeping and sitting locations. Officers carrying out these operations never made their reasons clear.

One night during the winter of 2005, I was moved on four times by the City Police. They probably followed my movements using the extensive CCTV system in London.

Most of us go about our daily lives safe in the knowledge that we are being protected by the state. But what happens when they are given too much power?

It is up to us to challenge this and keep it in check. Some say that the Orwellian notion of Big Brother is coming true today. But these developments make me wonder if we are not already there. I didn’t know about the Anti-social Behaviour Act before it was made law. And I had no chance to vote on it.

We need to keep ourselves informed and not sleepwalk into a social code designed to keep us in order, rather than simply keeping us safe.