Suella Braverman has announced plans to restrict the use of tents by homeless people, arguing that people see it as a “lifestyle choice”. But punishing people for seeking refuge is not the answer to solving our homelessness crisis, says Phil Conn
In the many years that I’ve been supporting people experiencing homelessness, the term “lifestyle choice” is one I have heard too often. Usually, it is used to shift the burden of responsibility for someone’s situation away from an organisation or public service onto the individual themselves – and, by doing this, absolving themselves of any obligation to help.
The response to trauma cannot be criminalisation
If we can say that someone has chosen to live a certain way, we can therefore say that the consequences of such a choice are theirs to contend with.
I find that conclusion problematic.
The reasons why a person would sleep rough are many and complex, but I’ve come to believe that, whatever the reason for an individual’s homelessness, no one should have to sleep on the streets - whether in a doorway under a duvet, on a bench in a sleeping bag or in a tent.
I don’t believe that anyone “chooses” to sleep rough. It is a last resort, a desperate situation, or the result of an unheard, unresolved cry for help.
Is it really ‘a choice’ if your only other option is to face an abusive relationship or violence at home?
Is it really a choice if your life has spiraled out of control after self-medicating deep rooted and unresolved trauma?
Is it really a choice when you’re too traumatised by your life experiences to be able to make a rational choice about your accommodation?
Or perhaps you are not able to cope with the rules and boundaries that often come with accommodation options. Some might call that being caught between a rock and a hard place. But they are not choices as many of us would traditionally understand them.
Of the thousands of people experiencing homelessness that I’ve encountered, I’ve worked with only a handful who have “chosen” to sleep on the streets; none of them have been well and all of them, if presented with a suitable and appropriate alternative, would have taken it.
A robust response
Because the reasons for homelessness are varied, we need varied and creative responses to solve it. This is both on an individual and structural basis. It is going to take a great deal of work and resources to become a nation where homelessness doesn’t exist.
Ms Braverman said in her statement: “Nobody in Britain should be living in a tent on our streets.” You will find no disagreement from me there. The solution to homelessness is not tents, on that the Home Secretary and I can agree. Tents are for camping holidays; they are not a housing solution.
But to focus on tents is to ignore a crisis that is decades in the making. The home secretary’s proposals, expected to be announced as part of the King’s Speech, include amending the Criminal Justice Bill to to target “those who cause nuisance… by pitching tents in public spaces,” said Braverman, as well as introducing civil penalities for charities that hand out tents to people who are homeless. These proposals will criminalise the poorest members of our communities, those who are most need. Punitive approaches aimed at the victims of a broken system are not the solution.
Responding to trauma
Oasis Community Housing’s research has shown that almost all of the people who use our services have experienced trauma. The word ‘trauma’ is a 17th-century word of Greek origin that literally means ‘wound’. Wounded people need care, not prosecution. The response to trauma cannot be criminalisation; the response to trauma must not be yet more trauma.
Tents are for camping holidays; they are not a housing solution
Jesus said that whatever we do for “the least of these brothers or sisters” we do for him (see Matthew 25:40). This is the weight of expectation placed on us all - to treat each other with dignity and kindness, paying particular attention to the “least” among us.
Nobody facing homelessness should have to sleep rough – in a tent or otherwise – but instead should have the housing and support they need to flourish again. Consider the often-misattributed quote: “The true measure of a society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”. How are we doing with that?