Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, has come up with yet another outrageous proposal: this would include new laws to restrict the use of tents by homeless people, arguing that many of them see it as a “lifestyle choice”… As if sleeping rough is a ‘lifestyle choice’! She also plans to create “a civil offence whereby charities could be fined for handing out tents”.
This might seem unbelievable in a country like the UK, a country with a history of generosity to people in distress, whether as a result of natural disasters or man-made crisis; a country in which the overwhelming majority of people show their compassion when they see others suffering.
Enough of generalisations, though: let’s focus on what happens in my community. The South Hams – perhaps because of its supposedly mild climate – has a history of attracting homeless people, whether it be ex-servicemen who have lost their way in life, “gentlemen of the road”, victims of the demon drink or substance abuse, those with mental health problems, or youngsters who have fallen out with their families for whatever reason.
What they all have in common is that they need support, compassion and practical help, not demonisation. Tragically – and notoriously – in the last few years, several rough sleepers in and around Totnes have died where they lay. An unidentified man was found dead in a ditch by a busy road. Another, Michael – who was known to local people – died of hypothermia in the doorway of a local church, soaked to the skin after a night of chilling rain. Extreme cases, but ones which provoked huge concern among local people.
My small parish group of members of the St Vincent de Paul Society (SVP) helped many such people over the years. We provided bedding and a camping stove for David, supporting him for a year or two as he slept ‘in the woods’ until he sorted his life out; he used to come to our services, and always put a few coppers into the Poor Box. Might we have been committing an offence, Mrs Braverman?
We also collected food donations from the parish, delivering them to the local food bank and ‘Drop-in- Centre. It was through the ‘Drop-in-Centre’ that, over a couple of particularly hard winters, we provided rough sleepers with ‘Vinnie Packs’, as part of a national SVP campaign to help rough sleepers. Each pack contained warm gloves, socks and hat and a few other essentials. We had to buy them, but never lacked enough parishioners willing to sponsor a pack – or several, demonstrating the generosity and altruism of most British people.
There are other charitable groups in Totnes which have done much to help the needy, including rough sleepers. Indeed, one recipient of help – Graham – shows his gratitude and recognition of the support our community has given him by devoting his time, now that he is settled, to raising money for local charities. Various members of my own family, including my grandsons, decided a couple of years ago to help rough sleepers instead of asking for Christmas presents; one of my sons once spoke to a young woman begging on the street; having asked her what she needed most, and went off to buy her a blanket. British people DO have a heart, Mrs Braverman. You should try finding yours.
As regards the ‘Drop-in-Centre’, it occupied a small unused council office on the industrial estate. It provided hot meals for rough sleepers on six days a week, cooked by volunteers and using food donated by SVP and others. It was run by Mark, a veritable living saint, minister of a small independent church. Not only did he ‘staff’ the centre as well as administering it, but he also provided counselling to drug addicts, alcoholics, and young people who had left their family home with nowhere to go.
Only when the weather turned really cold, was he permitted by the council to provide overnight accommodation with donated mattresses and bedding; a generous parishioner in my parish had paid for a shower room to be installed. Of course, on these occasions Mark had to stay at the centre overnight to supervise it; he had his own family, his own life – yet gave his time and effort selflessly to support rough sleepers and the homeless. Yes, Mrs Braverman, he gave of himself to offer sustenance, warmth, and compassion freely to people who, according to you, ‘had made their lifestyle choice’.
The Totnes ‘Drop-in-Centre’ no longer exists as such: supposedly the need for overnight emergency accommodation no longer exists in our area. A few years ago, South Hams District Council got its act together and began to make appropriate provision for the homeless and rough sleepers.
However, the numbers of homeless people in the UK are likely to increase: no less an authority than Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has just declared that poverty levels in the UK are “simply not acceptable” and the British government is violating international law. The United Nations’ poverty envoy made this statement ahead of a visit to the country this week, when he will urge ministers to increase welfare spending. He described the UK’s main welfare system as “a leaking bucket”.
Ms Braverman, perhaps you and your colleagues need to focus on the problems caused by YOUR government, rather than threatening to punish those who try to help the people whose lives are being blighted by the social crisis your policies have created.