Political football

Kicking people when they’re down has become the order of the day
as vote-seeking politicians vie with one another to demonstrate
zero tolerance towards homeless beggars, writes Susannah

Four people sell the Big Issue on Upper Street, in Islington,
north London. All are homeless, none beg, none look aggressive and
none are Scottish.

They stand there all day and most people walk straight past
them. The population of Islington, it would seem, has developed a
streak of ‘zero tolerance’ without any incentive from

Such a media furore blew up over Labour leader Tony Blair’s Big
Issue interview and Home Office minister David Maclean’s attack on
‘Scottish beggars’ that the real homelessness issues vanished in
the hyperbole.

Perhaps that was the politicians’ intention. Although Maclean
and Blair spoke from opposite sides of the political arena, their
comments served to fan the same fire. Both parties see ‘homeless
beggar’ bashing as a vote winner.

But that potential has always been there. According to a 1995
Guardian poll, nearly half the population thinks street beggars are
‘offensive’, 45 per cent that ‘they may be aggressive’ and 47 per
cent ‘feel sorry for them but don’t give them any money’.

Not all homeless people beg, nor are all beggars homeless, but
by referring to both these sections of the population as ‘homeless
beggars’, vote-seeking politicians have now created a new
stereotype for the national media to use. The media oblige by
portraying homeless people negatively, just as schizophrenics are
all billed as dangerous criminals.

Donna Fleming is client service co-ordinator of Scottish
homelessness agency Borderline. She calls this the ‘blame the
victim’ mood.

Ian Brady, deputy chief executive of London youth homelessness
agency Centrepoint, agrees: ‘It was disingenuous of Blair to later
say the interview was misconstrued. In that interview he went from
“begging” to “aggressive begging” to “street crime” and “zero
tolerance”. So “misconstrue” doesn’t wash with me.’

How Blair intends to provide homeless people ‘with a place to
go’ is unclear.

Brady says a Labour government may plan a ‘bigger and better’
version of the current Rough Sleepers Initiative and introduce
‘some kind of housing Bill’. He adds: ‘Everyone talks about the new
possibility of change in government and they hope that they will
tackle street homelessness. But this government’s Rough Sleepers
Initiative has at least forged an alliance between voluntary
agencies, the business community, government and police that does
actually work and no one wants to see that go.’

The police role has been central to the ‘zero tolerance’ debate.
But, says Brady, the police do not necessarily welcome the ‘heavy’
role they may be forced to play. He says: ‘The police do not want
to lose the RSI alliance. They do not want to be in the position of
having to get beggars off the street because it will just lead to
them having to deal with more conflict.’ The Metropolitan Police
declined to comment, ‘because it’s so near the election’.

Are politicians attempting to whip up anti-homeless feeling or
has it always been there? The Vagrancy Act 1824 states that ‘every
person wandering abroad, or placing himself or herself in any
public place, street highway or court or passage to beg or gather
alms or causing any child or children so to do shall be deemed an
idle and disorderly person within the true intent and meaning of
this Act and-it shall be lawful for any justice of the peace to
commit such offender-for any time not exceeding one calendar
month’. The Act still stands and up to 3,000 people a year are
still convicted for these ‘offences’.

The agency Crisis produced research in 1995 which found that
‘homeless people are more likely to be on the receiving end than be
the aggressors’. Big Issue sellers are regularly spat on and
attacked. Ian Brady says: ‘Whether people should give to beggars or
walk on by is to do with personal conscience but far worse is when
they are abusive. We hear lots of cases where drunks come out of
the pub and urinate on people sleeping in the streets.’

In Donna Fleming’s view there should be zero tolerance of
homeless people being used as political footballs. Politicians
‘should look at the real issues’, she says. But the problem is that
the electorate seems keener to join in the kick-around.

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