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.