The homeless shouldn’t be punished

According to its website, Oxford City Council’s proposed city-centre Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) “is about creating a safe and welcoming city centre for residents, businesses and tourists”. If you are homeless, however, your life is about to get a whole lot harder.

Criminalising a number of behaviours deemed to be anti-social, the proposed PSPO will mean that acts such as “aggressive begging” or, strangely, walking too many dogs, are punishable with a “Fixed Penalty Notice” of £100.

Arguably the most abhorrent aspect of this order is the Council’s demonisation of rough sleepers, despite claims that it only acts in their interests. Its website, again, states that: “There is a very small number of [homeless] people who refuse to engage with support services and resort to begging, often to fund an addiction. The PSPO aims to reach these people and to require them to get the help that they need.” This is both a false claim about rough sleepers and a thoroughly dishonest account of the motives behind the PSPO.

Shelters and other support services are often seen among the homeless as places to be avoided. Those battling addiction may fear being brought back into contact with their peers, in the company of whom they may be more likely to fall into old habits. As such, in a lot of cases, the street can be the safest place.

The Council must surely be aware of this fact, and so to peddle the image of rough sleepers as delinquent addicts, and itself as willing saviour, is a shameless act of deception. If any more proof were needed of its true motives, we need only remind ourselves that this same PSPO was originally proposed in June this year but had to be revised because it was claimed that it violated the 1998 Human Rights Act. The original version aimed to prohibit rough sleeping in the city centre altogether. It is clear: the Council are not trying to help the homeless of Oxford – they are trying to erase them.

The term “aggressive behaviour” is obviously an ambiguous one; it is unclear what, exactly, might fall under its scope. But one might hazard a guess.  In a city of staggering social inequality, home to a university known for educating some of the most privileged in the world, the presence of homelessness can be, rightly, a source of guilt and discomfort. While we students return home at the end of the day to our colleges, nearly every doorway of the city centre becomes somebody’s bed for the night – this is the ugly and inconvenient truth behind the outward beauty of the place. In their self-confessed endeavours to make Oxford “a world-class city”, it is unsurprising yet intolerable that the Council are trying to cover it up.

It does so by attempting to erase the homeless. It may have failed to ban them from the city altogether, but it has done the next best thing: reduce them to passivity; formulate rules such that any attempt by them to take an active part in the city, any act that draws attention to their presence and their very existence can be dubbed “aggressive” and therefore punishable. Even the seemingly arbitrary inclusion of restrictions on how many dogs can be kept by the homeless is not as bizarre as one might think: again, it is a restriction on how much space they can take up, how much of a presence they are permitted.  Thus they are reduced to silence and to invisibility.

If the presence of the homeless throughout Oxford is a source of discomfort to residents and students, this is probably due to our consciousness of the city’s vastly unjust social structure, though that is a wider issue in need of its own discussion. Meanwhile, the Council should not be actively making the lives of rough sleepers harder. It should not punish them for having the misfortune of being the manifestation of a far wider problem.

Image credit: Garry Knight