Brian Milne has spent a lifetime looking at the social world and no other section of that world angers him more than the existence of homelessness. Now, more than ever, homeless people need assistance but it seems that some of the solutions are far more destructive than helpful. Brian examines the current portrayal of homelessness and asks if we are not only doing enough but are we doing it correctly?
This article came about because one of us here on Europa United raised an issue that led to a question. It began thus: the World Economic Forum has a one minute video on their Facebook page under the title ‘Hungary has just banned homeless people from sleeping on the street’. The headline on the Facebook post asked “Is it the right thing to do?”
There is also a discussion piece ‘Hungary has introduced a tough new law on rough sleepers’ on the WEF website.
“First they came for the immigrants…
Then they came for the gays…
Next they came for the thinkers…
Now it’s time for outsiders…
Ring a bell?
My response to the question was this:
“It rings several bells. I have seen the futility of what amounts to criminalisation of homelessness in several countries. It has never made anything better, it does not even make it look better ultimately, just initially glosses over the picture until the sheen wears off and people return to the streets. That is when police heavy handedness leads to people believing vigilantism is legitimate and then come the beatings, destruction of the few precious belongings, ultimately deaths through the violence or the deprivation of the minimum of protection for sleeping in the open such as blankets or sleeping bags. Is it the right thing to do? Whoever even raises that question is party to crimes against humanity when most of the people are on the street for no fault of their own, no matter what is alleged about drinkers, junkies or people who stupidly lost their home because of ‘bad money management’ or ‘culpable unemployment’. There is a whole language of blame that avoids the truth and justifies abuse, neglect, injustice and deaths.”
Why I responded as I did
It touches part of my personal history. I began postgraduate research looking at migration. My initial work was with internal migration in both directions in Peru. At the time I was married to and worked with someone studying child labour, so took into account the economic activities of the young people who were my actual research subjects. Many of the young people, some as young as 10 years, who went to the big towns and cities alone had no choice but to live and work on the streets. So my work ‘evolved’ into the study of so-called street children. I was not formally attached to an organisation of any kind at first, therefore chose my own method for fieldwork. That was to go out on to the streets and live among homeless people for short periods. It was possible because there were always adults living there too. Between age groups there was an element of agelessness. Often the young helped older people, certainly the homeless people who were the age their grandparents would be. The imagery of thieves, murderers, hopeless alcohol and drug users and abusers, prostitutes and all other delinquent elements was the most popular, but hid the truth about the majority who were none of those but trying to survive.
Anyway, in time I built up a reputation as one of the few people working directly on the street and even began to get consultancy contracts for work in the field. At that point in time there were a few people known well in the street children business; Peter Taçon who founded Childhope in the late 1980s, Peter Dalglish and Frank O’Dea who set up Street Kids International in 1988, Father Bruce Ritter of Covenant House in New York and Ana Vasconcelos of Casa de Passagem in Recife. So, some of us set up an organisation called Streetwise International that built up the biggest archive of book, articles, reports and other documentation on street and working children worldwide. I was more or less the part time director rather than joining the board of trustees. The topics were mainly about under 18 year olds but the world is not that easily contained in a way that when looking at the street adult homelessness could be excluded. As it was, apart from Peter Taçon who died in the 1990s, each of the named people above accepted the need to work with adults as well. They knew full well that some of their street children and youth would go on to still be on the street as adults. The one who stands out among them is Frank O’Dea, a Canadian businessman, philanthropist and author who ended his youth then began his adult life on the street, then left a lifestyle of homeless begging, in 1975 co-founded the Second Cup chain of coffee stores in Canada and has returned part of his wealth to work with homeless people. My greatest criticism of the work done by all of them was that they attempted to get homeless youth off the streets and into shelters with what amounted to ‘rehabilitation’ programmes. They offered nothing to young homeless people who did not want to go into sheltered projects because they were so damaged they had no trust in fellow human beings, adults least of all.
The language of homelessness is wrong
I was also getting angry about the language of homelessness. In developing countries they were ‘street children’ but in advanced economies ‘homeless youth’. In the very Eurocentric latter, the discourse separated young people and adults, indeed to the point that there was only a ‘magical’ transition between them and the very artificial expression of youth as a period between ages 16 and 25 used almost artlessly to exclude those below 16 and draw a line at 25 where nobody ever actually counted. At least, it did not count as ingenuous in the young homelessness arena. That people become full legal adults at 18, thus roughly seven years added gave licence to not restricting activities to a small age group, was overlooked, thus I was critical. So I looked at the phenomenon in London and Amsterdam. Lo and behold, apart from the diversity of inventive economic activities one found in developing countries, I found much the same. Among adults there were without doubt drinkers and drug users, but many more people were dispossessed, many because of quite mild mental health problems of which a large proportion were caused by divorces, debts, evictions and other dislocating circumstances. Many of the latter were without the element of psychological difficulties. In fact, when one goes out to live on the street among the people for a while, the picture that emerges defies all efforts by media to demonise them makes the policies of all levels of government and actions to ‘resolve’ homelessness appear dehumanising and thoroughly discredits each society in which it happens.
It is far easier to apportion all blame on those who become homeless than for those who could do something about it to admit their culpability or actually do something meaningful. Society does not work that way, it tends to prefer not to see, to step over, kick out of the way or beat the proverbial shit out of the people who are less fortunate than themselves. Compassion is for other people and those who dare show it are adjudged weak.
So, my personal history influences my expression on the topic. Hungary is not unique, not the first to legislate this way. One might know that the UK imposes hefty fines on people who have nothing. Inability to pay those fines may result in a custodial or probation punishment, thus turning people whose only offence is to be unfortunate, into criminals. Other countries have draconian laws too. Dignity and real justice are accessories that do not fit in this picture. Living on the street, even spending a short time there, teaches one a lot. To be kicked, spat on, told you should be exterminated, to go away, be accused of drink or drugs when actually all you wanted was food, to be out in all weather and be alone even if part of a group is not what most of us know. We would often rather consider homeless people responsible for their own fate, thus best left to suffer it alone. Yet theoretically it could one day hit any one of us.
How it is criminalised
To be homeless is not of itself usually against the law, therefore it is normally dealt with as vagrancy which is the condition whereby a person wanders from place to place without any kind of regular employment or source of income. In many countries it depends on how people survive in a state of homelessness with begging being the commonest denominator. The laws and regulations that ban begging penalise their actions rather than the individuals who beg. In many cases a person need not actually be asking for money or anything else, but should a person be seen giving a homeless person something then, if seen, even that passive role in the transaction can be treated as begging which can therefore be punished. Nevertheless, actions sanctioned directly relate to activities homeless people participate in to survive. Poverty and homelessness are with few exceptions a lifestyle choice that people should be punished for according to the unspoken and unwritten sentiments behind laws. It is an essentially civil legal issue that sometimes crosses the line to become a criminal offence and also, very often, is a breach of people’s human rights. All EU Member States have signed key human rights treaties with the Council of Europe and UN. These treaties, particularly the European Convention of Human Rights but also the Convention Against Torture, place an obligation on EU governments to guarantee necessary minimum standards for all economic, social and cultural rights. Those include provision of access to essential health services, shelter or housing and education or training. All EU member states should respect these responsibilities thus directly funding to assist and support people in situations of poverty to recover their social, civil, economic, political, cultural and human rights, instead of criminalising them by imposing bans through to enforced violent actions against begging. They should do away with all forms of direct and indirect discrimination and harassment in all forms against homeless people and should implement necessary measures to this end. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights should be examining the extent and impact of extreme poverty and social exclusion on access to fundamental rights that takes into account enforcement of the right to shelter or permanent housing which is crucial for the enjoyment of other rights, particularly political and civil ones.
Loïc Wacquant, French sociologist and social anthropologist, who specialises in urban sociology and poverty, racial inequality and social theory, argued that strategies that criminalise homelessness by penalising begging and regulating use of public spaces, set out to get rid of homelessness through imprisonment. Thus prisons function as “a judicial garbage disposal into which the human refuse of the market society are thrown.” Although most of his analysis is based on what is happening in the USA he sees parallels here in Europe where “harassment of the homeless and immigrants in public space, night curfews and ‘zero tolerance,’ the relentless growth of custodial populations, the disciplinary monitoring of recipients of public assistance: throughout the European Union, governments are surrendering to the temptation to rely on the police, the courts, and the prison to stem the disorders generated by mass unemployment, the generalisation of precarious wage labour, and the shrinking of social protection”
The EU has a responsibility to end this phenomenon
The EU, through institutions such as the European Commission and the European Parliament particularly, has a clear role in raising awareness about the injustice of portraying homeless people as criminals. They are duty bound to be advocates for human rights in the EU through the institutions that should ensure that policies do not violate those rights, therefore do not explicitly or unintentionally contribute to the criminalisation and penalisation of homelessness. The EU should be promoting alternatives to this negative action through the development of integrated strategies to tackle homelessness as required in the Social Investment Package within the framework of the Europe 2020 Strategy and the European Platform Against Poverty. National governments such as Hungary should desist from developing and putting into practice policies that criminalise and penalise homelessness, whilst ensuring those policies are not counterproductive by, among other actions, raising awareness about the negative and disruptive impact of criminalising homeless people who are attempting to reintegrate into society. Some countries have outstanding homelessness strategies in place, yet at the same time allowing cities and regions to pursue homeless people who continue their activities in public places because there are no housing opportunities and suitable employment available. Thus social policy should not be left in the hands of local authorities who dress them up as security policies. It would be a step in the right direction by ensuring an adequate supported permanent housing option is available. Above all else, they should protect human rights of all people including the homeless by working with national Ombudsmen, NGOs and other organisations whose expertise supports national policies and programmes.
At present there is a growing number of people in EU states in dire and urgent need of housing. Far too many people have nowhere to live and sleep; therefore camp in open spaces, sit and sleep on streets and squares, in doorways, abandoned buildings, parks, squats and other places that are fundamentally unfit for human habitation. We find particular groups among people confronted with major difficulties are people with drug and alcohol problems that they took with them to or acquired on the street, Roma, refugees, migrants, victims of domestic violence, people with minor but sometimes major disabilities, elderly, internally displaced persons, tenants without security, people in the worst paid sectors of the labour market and, back to my own professional ‘roots’, street children.
The description of homelessness as a criminal act reflects innate prejudices about homeless people that allow lack of knowledge or denial of the deprivation and discrimination they suffer every day they are without shelter. Being homeless is rarely an individual choice but something that happens because one or more disadvantages of the kind described above. To live and sleep rough in public spaces of in derelict buildings constitutes great risk to one’s health, well-being and personal security. With few extreme exceptions, homeless people prefer to have adequate and safe housing if it is available and either supported or affordable once individuals begin to get back on their feet. Laws, regulations and controls that criminalise homelessness are still being introduced and enforced during the present economic crisis causing record levels of unemployment and poverty, sometimes forcing entire families to live on the streets. Yet it would appear that the shame of the visibility of homelessness and poverty require them to be hidden rather than treat them as critical economic and social issues. Criminalising of vagrancy and begging particularly, now increasingly including migration, is part of that trend. What main appears to be a conscious policy of exclusion covers up the reluctance of states to uphold the human rights of all people within their country and carry the responsibility for their situation when circumstances demand they be helped rather than penalised for misfortune.
Moral obligations and rights
States have a universally recognised moral obligation to protect people’s right to adequate accommodation and standard of living. Everyone should have the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity which are preconditions for the enjoyment of their civil and human rights. Social, economic and cultural rights that include the right to water, food, health, education and employment cannot be achieved without a protective environment, ideally permanent housing. The same applies to other civil and political rights such as the right to both a private and family life. To portray the homeless as criminals is counterproductive because it allows states to ignore measures that would help policy and programmes for the elimination of the conditions that cause and sustain poverty and social exclusion. Criminalising homeless people is effectively discrimination based on economic and social status that is assessed without taking causality into account but simply starting at the more visible end which is the outcome. Hungary stands out at this moment in time, the UK has an unenviable track record, France has dealt severely with refugee camps thus dispersing people who are vulnerable to turning to crime, in fact to name a nation that has entirely satisfactorily dealt with homelessness within the EU is very difficult in not, perhaps, almost impossible.
I began with autobiographical details of my background that have informed me. The words come easy. What cannot be drawn out of those words is the experience of being on the street to be kicked, trodden on, spat at, other were urinated on, had faeces thrown at them, beaten up with police turning a blind eye, also beaten by police, refused admission to a hospital emergency area, indeed ambulance crews saying people were too dirty to take to hospital. There are many compassionate people who give food, cigarettes, clothes and a little money, a few who offer shelter occasionally. Far too many of the homeless people are victims of circumstances, not culpable because of drugs or drinking as so often implied. There are intelligent, useful people with nowhere to go who risk and often suffer criminalisation because nobody cares enough to do something for them. States bear the responsibility for turning a blind eye; the EU, in that respect, is as blameworthy and clearly in dereliction of one of its moral obligations.