Criminalising the destitute

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The vicious Coalition government has opened up a new front in its war against the working class, targeting the most destitute and vulnerable sections of society. In this it has, as ever, the compliance of London’s Labour councils. Operation Encompass, in which local authorities work with the Metropolitan police and the UK Border Agency to ‘deal robustly’ with ‘disrupting and deterring’ rough sleeping in the capital, was piloted in the Tory-led borough of Westminster in October 2013. On a single day (17 October), 15 people were arrested and a further 60 ‘engaged with’ – usually in the form of anti-social behavior notices, a prelude to ASBOs which the council is fighting to retain. In January, Operation Encompass was extended to the Labour councils of Camden, Croydon, Islington, Lambeth and Southwark. Newham’s Labour council has its own project, Operation Alabama, run on similar lines.

The human cost of sleeping rough

Council leader Nickie Aiken, Westminster’s councillor for community protection, explained: ‘This is a major operation that we’re doing in conjunction with the police to sort out the human cost of persistent and aggressive beggars.’

The only ‘community’ these councils are interested in protecting is that of big business and wealthy homeowners. What do they care about the real human cost of homelessness that drives people to live on the streets and survive by begging? Austerity measures, including soaring rents, benefit cuts and sanctions, unemployment, the criminalization of squatting and increasingly strict criteria for access to a shrinking pool of hostel places has driven a 62% rise in rough sleeping over the last two years. The charity Crisis estimated that 6,437 people slept rough on the streets of London in 2013; the real figure will be much higher as many of the most vulnerable, including women and asylum seekers, sleep out of sight of outreach teams. The highest numbers of rough sleepers in London were recorded in Westminster, Lambeth, Camden and Southwark.

Charities estimate that as many as half of all households who find themselves homeless are refused emergency help by their local council; single people in particular may have little recourse but to live on the streets. Rough sleepers are at acute risk of physical and sexual assault and robbery. Many have complex needs, including mental health problems (44%) and alcohol (41%) or drug (28%) dependencies. A third have no support at all. Waste disposal companies report a 38% rise in finding rough sleepers in their bins; checks are compulsory after Ranjit Singh, a rough sleeper in the West Midlands, was crushed to death by a waste sorter’s metal claw last year. It is shocking but not surprising that rough sleepers are 35 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. Yet it is these people that the state now has in its sights.

Criminalisation and contempt

To justify Operation Encompass, its perpetrators deliberately conflate rough sleeping with anti-social behavior and begging with crime. Into this toxic mix is thrown a good dose of racism, with councillors accusing East Europeans of coming to Britain to engage in ‘a few months’ profitable begging’. In reality, 80% of all beggars in London are homeless, with many asylum seekers and migrants forced to live on the streets and beg when the state offers no other support – and the presence of UKBA makes it clear that part of the operation is to trawl for ‘illegal’ immigrants. Westminster has made no secret of its wish to target ‘East European gangs’; within the first few days of Newham’s Operation Alabama one person had been arrested by UKBA and two told to attend a reporting centre. The contemptuous and dehumanizing language used to describe rough sleepers gives a green light to thugs to beat up homeless people: in February, a 34-year-old homeless man was left in a critical condition after being beaten up in Northumberland while in Scotland a homeless busker was subjected to racist abuse before being viciously kicked and punched. Last year, three teenagers in Liverpool beat a homeless man to death ‘for a dare’.

Robin Wales, mayor of Newham, is one of those who has been most vitriolic in his attacks on rough sleepers, suggesting that, like vermin, they are attracted to the area around the Stratford shopping centre by ‘easy access to waste food and cardboard’. He promised a ‘rude awakening’ for rough sleepers and said that those who refused the council’s ‘assistance’ could expect ASBOs if they continued to sleep rough. 28 ASBO warnings have already been issued to rough sleepers in the Stratford area. This is a council which has boarded up hundreds of flats and continues to attempt to move vulnerable homeless people out of the borough (see E15 article p?) Robin Wales was most recently at a property fair in Cannes, hawking off further chunks of the council’s valuable real estate to international property developers.

Starve them out

Boris Johnson was recently forced to back down over plans by the Greater London Authority to ban food runs for the homeless in the capital, but Westminster continues to look for ways to prevent rough sleepers from ‘congregating’. Croydon Nightwatch, which offers food and support to rough sleepers, has had to fight tooth and nail to stay in the city centre, accused by the council as acting as ‘a hub for anti-social behaviour’. In an additional punitive twist, there are reports of authorities destroying the sleeping bags and bedding of those forced to sleep on the streets. These are criminal, inhumane acts by a state that has only contempt and hatred for those its policies have robbed of all means of subsistence and driven to destitution and despair.

Cat Wiener