Come on let’s kick the poor (like we did last summer)

The Bible tells us that the poor will always be with us, and as long as they are around there will always be politicians willing to punish them for their poverty.     It might be the Wisconsin State Assembly, which has just approved legislation banning food stamp recipients from eating junk food and also ‘luxury foods’ such as ‘crab, lobster, shrimp, or any other shellfish.’     Or Hackney Council, which has just launched a ‘Public Space Protection Order’ (PSPO), which will enable police to impose £100 on-the-spot fines for homeless people sleeping in doorways – a fine that can rise to £1,000 in court.

Hackney Council’s punitive response to homelessness is not original.   In America 31 cities have introduced restrictions preventing individuals and organizations from sharing food to the homeless.     Others have made it illegal for homeless people to possess personal items in public, or banned the homeless from city centers.   In 2013 the Budapest city council made it illegal for homeless people to occupy parks, underpasses, playgrounds and other public spaces, and threatened violators with fines and imprisonment.

State-sanctioned attacks on the homelessness are one component of a broad swathe of punitive and persecutory measures introduced by national and regional governments and municipalities in some of the richest countries in the world, that include cuts in benefits, means tests, sanctions, increasingly draconian conditions for state assistance,   fines for begging, and forced unpaid work placements.

These persecutory tendencies are both new and old.     In the Middle Ages vagrants or the ‘wandering poor’ were regarded as dangerous outsiders, and likely to be excluded from the parish or city states or arrested if they didn’t have a begging license or permission to be where they were.     In sixteenth century Spain, vagrancy was a criminal offence in many cities. During the Great Depression, homeless ‘bums’ who rode the railroads in the United States in search of work were hounded and beaten by police.

Even when the poor received charity or relief they are often regarded with suspicion and contempt.   In 1834 the Poor Law Commission recommended that no able-bodied person was to receive money or any other help from the Poor Law authorities except in a workhouse, that workhouses were to be built in every parish, where ‘conditions were to be made very harsh to discourage people from wanting to receive help.’

You don’t have to be a sociologist or historian to find explanations for such behavior: societies that accept an unequal distribution of wealth as the natural order of things do not like to be reminded of the negative consequences of such acceptance.         Hungry people, beggars, and vagrants are persistent evidence of social failure and often gross injustice.   Rather than analyse or seek to change the social and economic structures that create poverty, it is far more convenient to blame the poor themselves for their condition.   For this reason the poor are regarded again and again in different historical epochs as feckless, idle, and unwilling to improve their situation.

At best they are regarded as a burden that the rest of society must carry – if only out of self-interest.   At worst the poor are depicted as parasites, criminals, as a potentially destabilising force or as an aesthetically unpleasing and deviant intrusion into our daily lives.   Such hostility can often be more visceral in societies characterized by brazen injustice and inequality.

In Renaissance Spain, much of the population lived close to starvation, while a small elite of aristocrats who paid no taxes engaged in conspicuous and ostentatious consumption.     In the early 21st century we have witnessed a massive transfer of wealth to the rich and the super-rich in the UK and the United States and many other countries, that has accelerated during the financial crisis.

In these circumstances, the punitive and vindictive response to 21st century poverty is not surprising.     It will always make the wealthy feel better about their own wealth if they can blame the homeless and the jobless for their predicament, and politicians whose political futures are dependent on the wealthy and the powerful are only too willing to engage in the same stigmatisation.   Unfortunately too many people who are not rich prefer to kick down – particularly when they are bombarded on almost daily basis with fake rhetoric about ‘hard-working families’ that presents the ‘taxpayer’ as a victim of the parasitic ‘welfare scrounger’.

After all, poverty is discomforting and disturbing and even upsetting, particularly when you see it with your own eyes, and who wants to be made to feel uncomfortable when you’re just going about your business?   The homeless are the most visible expression of a phenomenon that would otherwise remain hidden and unseen, and which many people would prefer remained unseen.     This is the context in which Hackney – a Labour council – has included homelessness amongst its attempts to eliminate ‘persistent antisocial behavior’.

Some might think that punishing homeless people for being homeless itself constitutes antisocial behavior, and that such a response is yet another turn of the screw and another manifestation of institutionalized callousness and inhumanity.   But maybe I’m wrong.     After all, it’s extremely unlikely people sleeping in the street are going to be able to pay these fines, so they may end up going to jail for non-payment.

So maybe Hackney Council is not really trying to criminalise homelessness – it’s merely trying to house the homeless by a more circuitous route that won’t cause the same political offense that might occur if ‘the taxpayer’ provided them with social housing.

Maybe, but I really doubt it.

Spiking the Homeless

Many years ago back in the early 1980s, I lived in New York.   One of the many novelties that I was exposed to during those three and half years was the persistent evidence of   homelessness.     At that time tramps   and homeless people weren’t particularly visible in the UK, even in London.

In Manhattan, by contrast, they were a ubiquitous sight from Times Square down to the Lower East Side.   In the winters you saw them lying in heaps over the warm air vents by the subways in the freezing winters which they always sought out,   curled up under cardboard or piles of blankets and sleeping bags, or warming their hands around trashcan fires outside Bowery flophouses, looking like extras from the disaster movie Escape from New York, which came out around this time.

In the summer you would see them pushing shopping carts filled with possessions or carrying bundles on their backs as if they were about to embark on a long journey.   Most of them were men, but there were also a number of women who achieved the folkloric status of ‘bag ladies’.

Many of them were clearly mentally-ill, and they were on the street as the result of Ronald Reagan’s ‘community care’ program, which released quotas of mental patients into the streets where there was no community and no care.     You regularly encountered them screaming incomprehensibly at traffic or passersby or haunting the pavements like ghosts, their madness and despair a disorientating counterpoint to the daily ebb and flow   of the richest city in the world.

That was the dawn of the neo-liberal era, of Gordon Gekko’s morals and Ronald Reagan’s ‘trickle-down’ economics, and what I saw was only the beginning of something much worse.     Within a year of returning to the UK   in 1983, I was reading about fullscale cardboard cities in my former stamping ground in the Lower East Side, most of whose inhabitants were Hispanics driven further and further east by gentrification.

By that time, homelessness had begun to achieve a similar level of visibility in the mother country.     Except that now, instead of the occasional middle-aged or elderly tramp, you became accustomed to seeing even young people begging, sitting all day under a strip of blanket with a whippet lying glumly beside them.

None of this was accidental.     In both countries the increase in homelessness was the result of decisions and economic policies taken by governments, in which unemployment was accompanied by the destruction of social programs,   a reduction   in social housing and housing subsidies, and/or rising rents.     In London, thousands of council and private houses were left empty, in some cases for years.   In Manhattan, rents became so high that one friend told me how he answered an advert for a studio apartment to rent, which turned out to be a cupboard.

Today,   nearly three decades later, homelessness continues to constitute an essential hallmark of the neo-liberal economic order, and one of the most disgraceful and abhorrent manifestations of the amoral con-trick we now call ‘austerity.’     In the UK the numbers of rough sleepers have risen by 37 percent since the coalition came to power, an increase that is due in part to government cuts in benefits and housing subsidies.     In the US, the 2008/9 crisis has resulted in a proliferation of tent cities across the country.

Once again, as in the 80s, this phenomenon is a product of policy.   But unlike the 80s, homelessness is no longer simply treated with indifference, but has become the object of   explicitly persecutory policies.   In the US ‘ tent cities’ are routinely demolished.    In many parts of the country the homeless are liable to be arrested for ‘aggressive panhandling’ or disorderly conduct, or simply for living in improvised shelters.

In the UK, the police have confiscated sleeping bags and food parcels from rough sleepers.   The reasons for such behavior are usually the same; that beggars and homeless people are a nuisance; that their presence is unsightly and produces a ‘negative impact’ on the surrounding area, as police described homeless people in Ilford last year. And now a block of flats in Southwalk has taken the drastic step of installing metal studs outside its main doorway to stop people sleeping there:

Anti-homeless spikes photographed by Andrew Horton outside a block of luxury flats on Southwark Bridge Road

So far no one seems to know exactly who installed these spikes, but whoever it was ought to be congratulated on artistic grounds,   if nothing else. Because what they have done, however inadvertently, is produce a haunting symbol of the institutionalized amorality and social cruelty that defines our era, and a visual statement that Banksy would struggle to equal, and which is at least worthy of an honourable mention for the Turner Prize.

On one level, as so much twitter outrage has pointed out, these spikes symbolize the transformation of the homeless into a form of vermin.   But their artistic resonance goes further than that.     These spikes beautifully encapsulate the essential concerns of a society   that has abandoned any pretence of social justice, fairness and equality, even to the point of refusing to ensure what ought to be the essential component of any civilized society – a home for all its citizens.

Today London has become a speculator’s dream, a millionaire’s playground where house prices are rising beyond the reach of all but the middle and upper classes, where property can be bought and left empty simply to make its owners richer, while people on benefits have to pay ‘bedroom taxes’ or lose their homes.

Of course a society like this doesn’t like to be reminded of the consequences of its callousness and inhumanity by actually having to look at the ‘unsightly’ people in the streets or outside the doorways of luxury flats.

Like the cast of Made In Chelsea, its more well-heeled residents want to go on being cool and living the lifestyle that their income entitles them to.  And its cheeky chappie mayor wants to keep on bringing in more millionaires into the city, because that’s what makes us all richer.

Given such priorities, it’s only logical that the homeless must be moved on and swept out of sight, and relentlessly persecuted.     And it’s obvious that the brilliant satirist who installed those spikes intended them as a form of social protest, in a powerful attempt to rouse the national conscience regarding the problem of homelessness.   That these spikes have now been installed outside the Labour Party hq – once again, it seems, without anyone’s knowledge – is a tribute to the biting satirical imagination of their creator.

So rather than criticism, he/she deserves congratulation for tackling this problem head on, and for proving, despite assertions to the contrary, that art can still be political after all, and can still contain the power to shock us out of our complacency.


’tis the Season to be Hateful

Some years ago I read that Charles Dickens would sometimes pay tramps to sit outside his house on Christmas Day, so that he and his carousing guests could enjoy the cosy domestic pleasures of the Victorian hearth even more, by contrasting it with the poverty and deprivation just outside his front door.

I’ve never managed to discover whether that story is true or not, and I initially thought in any case that it was an odd thing to do. But lately I’ve come to conclude that it isn’t that odd at all, because in a way British society does something similar every year, when the homeless suddenly become a subject worthy of media attention in the lead up to Christmas.

Judging from the almost ritualistic way that the homeless will appear on tv and the radio, a recently arrived alien would be forgiven for believing that people only become homeless during December, and then go back to their houses again, after providing the rest of us with as a kind of bleak seasonal counterpoint to the Rabelaisian levels of consumption with which we celebrate the birth of the Messiah.

This year has been no exception. We learned from Shelter that 80,000 children were homeless on Christmas Day in the UK. We read about how Americans showered presents on a homeless Washington schoolgirl called Christmas Diamond Hayworth, after a heartrending story appeared in the Washington Post, which described how she and her mother had been turfed out onto the pavement.

Many readers were moved to tears by that story, and so touched by the contrast between the world of poverty that it described and the affluence of their own children, that they personally visited the shelter where Christmas and her mother were staying to present her with the paint set and art materials she had set her heart on.

Noone can deny that this is a sweet story, or that the sentiments of those who did this were admirable and even noble. But there are other issues here, which the Washington Post did not address, in its celebration of the altruism shown by a (guilty) few towards a girl with an appropriately seasonal name; namely what kind of society is it that allows a woman and her children to be thrown out onto the street because she doesn’t have money to pay the rent?

Why must me feel goodwill towards the poor at Christmas, yet tolerate for the rest of the year the systemic factors that reduce people to poverty and homelessness, and which increasingly strip away the protection and support available to keep the weakest and most vulnerable sections of society from becoming even poorer?

From today, for example, 1.3 million Americans who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more will lose their unemployment benefits, because Congress, with the support of President Obama, has not included an extension of the period over which such benefits are allowed in its new budget.

In the UK, the Trussell Trust has attributed the astonishing rise in the numbers of people using foodbanks primarily to the benefit cuts and ‘reforms’ introduced by the Coalition government. Yet Ian Duncan Smith, a stunningly callous and fanatical politician who is beginning to make Lord Castlereagh look positively benign, accuses the Trust of ‘scaremongering’ in order to promote its ‘business model.’

In a Commons debate shortly before Christmas, Duncan Smith and his deputy Esther McVey could be seen smirking and sniggering along with other Tory MPs as Labour MP Fiona MacTaggart told the house of shoppers in her local Tescos scrabbling for discounted vegetables.

Not even the season of goodwill could inject any humanity into this lot, it seems. We might ponder over the mysterious psychological processes that lead people like Duncan Smith to have a little chuckle at the thought of poor people scrabbling round to survive, some of whom will be doing so as a result of their policies.

But to some extent we would be wasting our time. Because what we are dealing with here is a social phenomenon, that we can trace back through the 19th century Poor Laws and the workhouse, to the fear and regulation of the ‘wandering poor’ in the Middle Ages.

Rich and unequal societies fear and to some extent hate the poor who provide the most visible evidence of social injustice. The elites who benefit most from such injustice have even more reason to do so, because they see in the poor the possibility of their ultimate downfall, and a moral obligation that they are reluctant to accept.

So like the Republican Party in the United States, and like the Coalition, they must convince themselves that the poor are poor because of their vices, because they are lazy, feckless and parasitical.

They more they do this the more they are able to ease any sense of moral responsibility or obligation towards them and feel better about the wealth they have or the wealth they might have. Blaming those who have little or nothing is also a lot more convenient politically, than drawing attention to those who have everything, or the structural inequalities that extreme disparities in wealth and power have embedded into society.

This is why ‘benefit scroungers’ and the ‘workshy’, disabled people and migrants have got such a kicking over the last few years, just as beggars and ‘masterless men’ once did in times gone by.

And the more the gap grows between the haves and have nots, the more pressing it becomes to gloss over the fact that so much poverty is essentially manufactured poverty, and blame it on the poor themselves.

When I say manufactured, that’s exactly what I mean. On Boxing Day, a coroner’s report revealed that Tim Salter, a 53-year-old unemployed man who has been partially blind since 1994 and suffered from mental health problems, hanged himself in September because a Government test had judged him fit for work and cut his disability benefits.

Salter was only two days from an eviction from the house where he had lived all his life, when he killed himself. According to the Coroner:

‘A major factor in his death was that his state benefits had been greatly reduced leaving him almost destitute and with threatened repossession of his home.’

No doubt that is a story to make Duncan Smith and his colleagues chuckle over their Christmas turkey – or blame it on the mental health problems of a little person with nothing much in the bank.

But many others might conclude that this was a death that did not need to happen;that no one should ever be thrown on the street or forced to go to a foodbank in what remains one of the richest countries on earth; that such things are not the result of fate or destiny or bad lifestyle choices, but political decisions taken by men and women who really don’t care very much about anybody’s interests except those above a certain income level.

And the fact that we have allowed such people to rule us is something that should fill us with shame and disgust – and move us to something more than a little flutter of generosity and goodwill once a year.

Let squatters squat!

It won’t be news to many people that there is a housing and homelessness crisis in the UK, but a few statistics are worth considering to remind ourselves of the dimensions of the problem.

According to the homelessness action group Crisis, 400,000 single people are homeless, and living in B&Bs, squats, or the floors of family and friends.   In 2010, 61,000 people were  listed  by UK local authorities as newly homeless.  In the first quarter of 2011 61,000 homeless people were living in temporary accommodation.

Meanwhile nearly five million people are on the waiting list for social housing, while the sale of council houses continues to be a  lucrative profit-making industry.  This autumn  rents have shot up to the point when the average tenant is paying £713 a month.  By 2025, the  Institute of Policy Research predicts that there will be a housing shortfall of 750,000 in England alone.

Against this background, the Coalition is now proposing to introduce a law criminalising one of the few ways in which people without money for rent – let alone money to get on the ‘housing ladder’ – can keep themselves off the street: squatting.

Under a new amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill announced today by Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, it will be a criminal offence  to squat in any residential building regardless of whether or not the building is occupied or about to be, and offenders will be liable to a year in jail and fines of up to £5,000.

The Ministry of Justice has just published the results of its consultation on Options for dealing with squatting, which declares unequivocally that ‘ law-abiding property owners and  occupiers should be able to enjoy their entitlements to their property without  undue interference from those who have absolutely no right to be there‘.

The paper contains a foreword  by Crispin Blunt, Under-Secretary of State for Justice, who like  many MPs,  has himself made ample use of  these   ‘entitlements’.  In August last year he was told by the parliamentary fees committee to stop claiming expenses on his London second home, because he was living there with his family.

Blunt then asked if he could take out a second mortgage on his constituency home in Surrey and claim that on expenses instead, but when this request  was refused he sold it and bought a bigger house, on which he claimed £16,000 in stamp duty.

Between 2004-2008 he claimed £87, 728 in second home expenses, including £417 to repair a broken water wheel.    This is clearly nice work if you can get it, so we can’t be entirely surprised by his moral indignation towards those who don’t play by these rules:

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‘I have been contacted time and time again by MPs and  constituents about the appalling impact that squatting can have on their  homes, businesses and local communities. This is not media hype. It can and  does really happen; and when it does it can be highly stressful for the owner  or lawful occupier of the property concerned.

It is not only the cost and length of time it takes to evict squatters that angers  property owners; it is also the cost of the cleaning and repair bill which follows  eviction. While the property owner might literally be left picking up the pieces,  the squatters have gone on their way, possibly to squat in somebody else”s  property.’


Having been a squatter myself in the 70s and 80s for nearly ten years in 4 different cities, including London and Amsterdam, I can’t say I’m particularly sympathetic to property owners on this issue.  The principle that I and many other squatters once operated by, was that if someone has no place to live and a property is empty,  they should be able to occupy it as long as they aren’t depriving someone else of a home.

Most of the time we lived in abandoned or boarded up council properties, that had in some cases been left abandoned for years.   Even then it was a very insecure existence: evictions were frequent and there were times when you were packing your belongings into a van every few months.

In  my case – and in the case of many other squatters I knew at the time –  squatting was chosen rather than forced upon us.    Most of us were young, and didn’t consider ourselves to be homeless.    We liked the freedom, the sense of adventure and living in an ‘underground’ political community.   We thought, like Proudhon, that property was theft and we were especially opposed to the use of private property for speculative purposes.

In Amsterdam we often occupied buildings that we knew were being kept empty by companies and individual landlords for this purpose.  Whatever the reasons, many of us became quite adept at doing up houses rather than wrecking them – contrary to the picture contained in Blunt’s consultation paper.

In Camden for example,  some of the squatters I knew in the 80s renovated their houses and formed housing cooperatives that provided homes to people who would otherwise not have been able to afford to rent or buy.   All this was going on at a time when the Thatcher government was actively  trying to cultivate a new generation of working class Tories by allowing them to sell their council properties.

So squatting is not necessarily the destructive and parasitical activity described in the government consultation paper.  And despite its portrayal of squatters as irresponsible, destructive vandals,  the real basis of its opposition lies clearly in  its ideological commitment to  the principle of private ownership that has done so much to cause the housing crisis of the last three decades.  As Shelter notes

A major reason for the social housing sector shrinking in the past 30 years, is that hundreds of thousands of social tenants bought their homes during this time after they were given the  Right to Buy (council housing tenants) or the  Right to Acquire (housing association tenants). This trend, combined with low levels of social house building, has drastically reduced the availability of social housing in England.’

On the one hand we have a South Sea bubble economy driven by an overheated housing market celebrated in tv programmes like Grand Design, Location:Location and countless others.   At the same time we have the society described in a report produced by the Centre for Regional and Social Economic Research for the homelessness action group Crisis in May this year, where

[stextbox id=”alert”]’Single homeless people resort to desperate measures to put a roof over their head. The study uncovered evidence of people engaging in sexwork to pay for a night in a hotel, committing crimes in the hope of being taken into custody, and forming unwanted sexual partnerships to securea bed for the night.'[/stextbox]

Evidence provided by respondents to the government’s consultation paper makes it clear that many squatters would otherwise be on the street.  This list includes high levels of foreign and particularly Eastern European squatters in London,  young people who cannot afford to pay rent let alone a mortgage,  vulnerable people, some of whom have mental health issues, on benefits, and Gypsies and travellers.

So Squatters Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) is surely correct in observing that the amendment ‘ will criminalise the homeless in the middle of a housing crisis who use squatting as the last remaining option to keep a roof over their heads.”

And who is Labour backing on this issue?  Who do you think?  According to the Guardian, Sources working for the shadow justice minister said they did not think there was any possibility that the new law would affect sit-ins and occupation protests as previously feared,  and they would support the change to show their support for homeowners.’

So there you have it.   In the midst of a chronic homelessness crisis which will almost certainly intensify over the coming years, the Coalition – with the support of the opposition – proposes to introduce a bill which will criminalise squatters and increase the numbers of homeless people.

Classic joined-up thinking.  But never mind, because the consultation paper proposes ‘a balanced approach: criminalising  squatting in residential property on the one hand whilst helping to ensure that  people found squatting are put in touch with relevant support agencies and  continuing to tackle the root causes of homelessness, providing more  affordable homes and bringing empty homes back into use  on the  other.’

Phew!  And there I was thinking that this bill was just another product of a heartless and inhuman government that really doesn’t give a damn about anybody below a certain postcode/income bracket.  Silly me.