On 1 December, South Tyneside was named the ‘homeless capital’ of the north-east. But instead of trying to help the homeless community, it appears the council has decided to punish them. It now plans to impose fines of up to £100 on anyone accepting food and drink from passersby.
South Tyneside is a metropolitan borough in Tyne and Wear. Recently, housing charity Shelter released statistics which revealed that the borough is facing a catastrophic homing problem. According to Shelter, there are 290 people classed as homeless in the borough, which works out as one in 521 of the population.
This ratio is dramatically worse than anywhere else in the region. This includes that in the neighbouring cities of Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough.
The gathered data combined information from government statistics and freedom of information requests. But the problem could be even worse than these statistics suggest. Some people without a home address could be staying with friends or family, be unwilling to reveal their status or even just missed from the data collection.
Of the statistics, lead member for housing and transport at South Tyneside Council Allan West said:
Homelessness is a national issue that should concern us all. We have been working very hard to prevent homelessness before it occurs and have actually seen a 37.7 % decrease in homelessness in the borough over the past five years.
Fine the homeless
Despite “working very hard to prevent homelessness”, the borough still faces a huge problem. Furthermore, its latest initiative (which came into effect [pdf] in July) doesn’t work towards helping prevent the problem. Instead, it appears to punish the homeless population.
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Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPO) ban people from drinking in designated streets. While this aims to tackle anti-social behaviour, the rules [pdf] also mean anybody who makes “verbal, non-verbal or written requests… for money, donations, or goods” could face a fixed-penalty fine. A person guilty of this offence is liable for a fine [pdf] up to the maximum value of £100.
Of the fines, Councillor Allan West said:
These orders are in no way aimed at people in genuine hardship. We have to balance protecting our residents and visitors with providing help and support for those in genuine need. We have not issued any fixed penalty notices for begging since the orders were introduced six months ago although we have spoken to individuals and written to them where a home address is known. Tackling homelessness is a core priority for the council. Where someone is in crisis we have a range of services which help individuals to find the support and housing they need.
While the scheme seeks to tackle anti-social behaviour, punishing the homeless population with a £100 fine appears counter-intuitive.
On 8 December, Birmingham City Council announced that £10m would be cut from its homeless and domestic abuse budget, just days after a homeless man died on the streets. And this isn’t an isolated case. Councils up and down the country are facing greater cuts and tighter regulations.
As a result, more and more people are relying on charitable donations. In November, The Trussell Trust revealed it is on course to break its 12-year record. The food bank network gave out 519,342 emergency food supplies between April and September 2016. 12,973 more than it supplied last year.
The UK needs to stand up and take action. At present, the government is not doing anything to help our most vulnerable members of society. Thousands will face a difficult winter, just trying to survive on our streets. It shouldn’t have to be like this. And it won’t have to be if we stand up and take action.
– Read more about the Conservatives’ benefit cuts.
– Write to your MP to urge them to raise this issue in parliament.
– Find out more about the work of the Trussell Trust.
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