Charities have expressed concern about an “open season” on homeless people following tough language by police and political figures and vigilante threats to “fake homeless”.
Those working on the frontline suggested that rough sleepers and others might be facing a cold climate in a broader sense even as a major operation swung into action to shelter homeless people amid heavy snow and falling temperatures.
At least one homeless man has died during the freezing weather: he was found dead on Tuesday in his tent in the snow in Retford, Nottinghamshire.
Police in Cambridgeshire claimed last week that every single “homeless” beggar in Ely was making “substantial amounts of money” and that the city had no genuine rough sleepers.
There was also an outcry over a campaign launched by a businessman in Torquay, Devon, in which volunteers photographed people and put up posters warning “fake homeless” people that they would be “cross-referenced”.
Separately, the leader of Windsor council – who sparked uproar over his call for rough sleepers to be cleared from the town before the royal wedding in May – said on Twitter on Thursday that there would be a major investment next month in community wardens to focus on antisocial behaviour across the borough.
The council had earlier in the month withdrawn plans to fine rough sleepers £100 as part of a strategy enforced by wardens. A spokesperson said plans to expand the number of wardens were being worked on.
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, the national charity for homeless people, said: “There seems to have been a bit of an open season with people trying to adopt approaches which are somehow seeking to ‘other’ people on the street, for example by referring to ‘aggressive begging’ or ‘clearing the streets’ and so on.
“It’s important to say that not all homeless people are begging and not all people begging are homeless. But there are people who are doing both and frankly if someone has got to the point in their life where they are begging then there is an issue to be concerned about and dealt with rather than looking at aggressive ways of removing people.”
Sparkes suggested that recent developments needed to be seen in the context of legal instruments given to local authorities under the Localism Act to tackle rough sleeping in particular ways and that this may have led in part to some statements. “A lot of that also has to do with the fact that people in positions of power are looking for shortcuts.”
Barrie Hodge, of the Birmingham-based homeless charity St Basils, described the comments of police in Ely as “absolute nonsense”, adding: “In terms of begging we know that the reality is that there are people not in genuine need. That’s horrendous and it’s wrong but we shouldn’t penalise people who are in need.”
One problem was a lack of consistency by councils taking different approaches, he said, while praising the emphasis on tackling homelessness by the new mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street.
Hodge added: “The reality is that we are dealing with human beings who are on the streets for many different, complex reasons, but I do wonder if we are increasingly living in a society which now thinks it’s OK for some people to think the way they do. There’s also the growth of the rightwing media which pushes a certain narrative.”
Rick Henderson, chief executive of Homeless Link, said the charity had also been worried about reports of hostile responses from councils and community groups to the rising levels of people sleeping rough. “This approach is both unsympathetic and unhelpful, as it does nothing to solve the root causes of homelessness or other complex support needs.”
In Torquay, Chris Pannell, of the Torbay homeless charity Friends of Factory Row, linked the campaign there to what he described as more widespread open expressions of prejudice towards rough sleepers.
“If we begin to blame beggars and rough sleepers for the ills of our community – and seaside resorts who rely on visitors are particularly sensitive to this issue – then there can be an underclass that is easily dehumanised and becomes more likely to be targeted,” he said.
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