Adding context to the Windsor ‘homelessness’ story

04 Jan 2018
by Michael Leng

The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead became the centre of international media attention today, when news outlets around the globe published details of plans to ‘Remove the Homeless’ ahead of this year’s Royal wedding.

It was the story that had it all: the uncaring local authority and the Royal Family versus hardworking local charities and some of the most vulnerable people in our society. This simple, easily understandable narrative was played out in print, on-line, on the airwaves and (inevitably) in the often vitriolic environment of social media.

Begging and rough sleeping are not the same thing.

Deeply entrenched positions were taken and political points were scored, but sadly this particular story did almost nothing to advance public understanding of some very complex issues. Indeed, much of the coverage served only to propagate some deeply unhelpful misconceptions about homelessness and social exclusion.

I want to use this blog post to address some key elements of this story, and insert some much needed context. I cannot claim an expert knowledge of the situation in Windsor, but believe the experiences of Framework in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire are fairly typical. My intention here in not to defend the council leader or his undoubtedly clumsy turn of phrase [talk of ‘vagrants’ and ‘beggars’ are dehumanising and unhelpful], but to address some key areas of concern, including:

The conflation of begging and rough sleeping

Begging and rough sleeping are not the same thing. We know from our work in Nottingham that most people we come across who are begging do not sleep rough. We know also that most people who we see sleeping rough do not beg. These issues are sometimes related but are actually two very distinct issues that require individual responses. People who beg nearly always have complex problems – for example with drugs, alcohol and mental ill-health. They need and deserve help, but not necessarily with their housing.

‘Professional beggars’ earning hundreds of pounds a day

It is certainly true that some people are very good at begging. It is also true that some people will travel to wealthy areas with a high footfall to beg. It is also true that some people who beg will dishonestly claim to be sleeping rough, but in almost all cases people who beg are living desperate lives that few of us would envy. Even if they are not sleeping rough, someone begging to feed an addiction, for example, is not going to return to a comfortable, warm and welcoming family home to enjoy the fruits of their labour. In reality they are more likely to be funding a deeply destructive cycle of behaviour. They need and deserve support that is properly designed to meet their needs. 

People choosing to sleep rough

This is one of the more emotive issues to come out of this story – the idea that people choose to endanger themselves by sleeping rough. In our experience this is certainly not the norm, but, as strange as it may sound some of the people we find sleeping rough do not want to accept our help. This does not mean they enjoy living on the streets or are in some way making a lifestyle choice; it simply means they have become entrenched in a cycle that is very difficult to arrest. Many of the people, for example, have a fundamental distrust of statutory agencies like the police and local authorities – often because of traumatic experiences in the past. Others simply feel that their situation is hopeless and that nobody can help them. A minority of people, meanwhile, will sleep rough to assist their begging. Again, those people need and deserve support that is appropriate to their needs.

The role of the police

People who beg or sleep rough are very vulnerable, with complex needs that require the support of specialist services. Where those services exist and all other options have been exhausted, the police can actually play a positive role in pushing people towards help. For that reason we and other agencies working with homeless and vulnerable people will sometimes work closely with the police to ensure the people they are coming into contact with are given the help they need. Whilst I would never support the blanket forced removal of vulnerable people from our town centres, there are some circumstances where police enforcement action can lead to positive outcomes.

Begging and rough sleeping are very complex social issues that are rarely explored in any depth by media organisations who traditionally favour simple, easily understandable narratives where two distinct sides square off against each other.

This approach may make a great story but it does little to increase public understanding or (more importantly) to help people who are in need.

I don’t have the space to dissect this story fully, but anyone seeking a better understanding would do well to this original council letter (the source of the story) and this report by the BBC.

Michael Leng Michael Leng is Framework's Operations Director

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