Draconian measures to punish rough sleepers will only sweep the problem of homelessness under the carpet. Labour councils should instead be fighting for a socialist programme of mass social housing construction.
Manchester city council has proposed a series of measures to crack down on homelessness in the city centre, around which they are currently holding a public consultation.
The plan is to introduce a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) that would apply penalties to many behaviours associated with rough sleepers and street drug users. This includes:
“Occupying a tent or other temporary structure in a manner which is likely to create a health and safety risk for other people; continuing to obstruct a building entrance/exit, stairwell or highway after being asked to move; urinating or defecating in a public space (except a toilet); aggressive or intimidating begging.”
Also included are public drinking, discarding needles, and failing to dispose of litter when asked to by police. Anyone found guilty could face a £100 fixed penalty, or £1,000 if prosecuted in court.
Out of sight
These plans do nothing other than criminalise any activity rough sleepers might be expected to take in their situation. Police would be given the power to further harass and victimise an already highly vulnerable group of people, on terms open to very subjective implementation.
This is a cruel – not to mention ineffective and arbitrary – attack on the very people who have been let down the most by our unjust housing system, through punitive measures which attempt to move people along and shift the problem out of sight.
If you cannot sleep in a tent, or a shop doorway, are you expected to freeze on the ground? If all the public toilets have been shut down, and local establishments refuse you access, where can you go to the toilet? What counts as ‘intimidating’ begging? Where are rough sleepers supposed to go? And how can they be expected to pay a fine?
The council is hoping that enough hassle from police will cause rough sleepers to move away from the city centre to please irritated wealthy residents and local businesses, and go instead to working class areas which are ignored.
These measures attack the symptom not the disease. Manchester has seen a 34% rise in homelessness from 2017 to 2018 alone. Shockingly, more homeless people died in Manchester in 2017 than any other local authority.
The root of the problem lies in the capitalist system. At one pole, landlords and investors accumulate billions worth of estate capital, with thousands of properties being used as speculative assets and lying empty. At the other, thousands sleep in the street due to lack of access to affordable housing.
The endemic crisis of the capitalist system has given way to savage austerity. This affects working-class, Labour-voting areas like Manchester particularly harshly.
Social housing stock has been sold off en masse, providing an enormous cash-in to the private sector. Shelters have closed down. Addiction and mental health issues (themselves rooted in capitalist alienation) strongly impact homelessness, yet social services that tackle these problems have been decimated. Finally, the introduction of Universal Credit has been shown to drastically compound the problem and push many into homelessness.
This PSPO proposal is further evidence of the uncaring approach Manchester’s Labour council has unfortunately chosen to take in tackling anti-social behaviour and street-dwellers.
An expensive private security firm was employed to patrol Chinatown around Chinese New Year to ward off ‘nuisance’ behaviour. Council leader Richard Lees recently described Christmas as “peak-begging season”, while council Twitter accounts condemned street kitchens for attracting undesirables. Mayor Andy Burnham’s flagship new homeless shelter was recently closed down after just two weeks due to electrical problems.
The council has taken some steps to alleviate the housing crisis, led by a handful of new left-wing councillors. This year, the first new council homes to be built in Manchester in a decade were finished in Moston.
However, these measures do not go nearly far enough. The council still looks towards attracting private development as the main aim, no matter who is left behind.
Council stats show there are 8546 empty homes in Manchester. There is no lack of housing. It is just in the wrong hands: the hands of capitalists who only put stock to use when a profit can be made.
Labour councils need to embark on a massive programme to build social housing, and restore social services. Of course, while councils are beholden to Tory austerity, this won’t happen.
A national programme of coordinated resistance to local cuts should be led by Labour councils and trade unions. The aim should be to bring a national Labour government to power, replenish social housing, and provide a home for everyone. This would require the nationalisation of the construction companies and the expropriation of housing assets from profiteering landlords.
This kind of vision is a world away from the cruel and diversionary tactics being planned against rough sleepers through the PSPO consultation, another of many consultations which have simply been used to justify pre-existing plans.
You can take part in the consultation and tell the council what you think. However, we need to agitate locally in our communities, Labour parties, trade unions, and tenants’ associations for a socialist response to the housing crisis.