Hosing down the homeless

September 24, 2008 at 10:54 am | Posted in British Politics | 1 Comment

Forever fond of its grandiose targets, the government announced some time ago that it was going to rid the homeless from Britain’s streets by 2012, presumably so that when London becomes filled with Olympic tourists, the only shabby, downtrodden drunks they’ll encounter will be our nation’s pop stars. In order to attain the frankly unattainable, the City of London Corporation has taken to sending outreach workers into homeless hotspots to persuade them to either enter a hostel or a drink/drug rehabillitation programme. If that doesn’t work, a council crew will turn up some time later to spray where they might’ve been sleeping with the odd gallon of water.

As cruel as this sounds, we should probably curb our self-righteousness; homelessness remains a deep-rooted social problem and it’s clear that whilst the provision of shelters has improved in the past decade, it’s still dependent on the homeless population to seek refuge inside them. So if this policy has the consequence of providing a few rough sleepers with such a shock that they feel they’ve no other option than to seek help, then it’s possible to see some benefit.

That shouldn’t, however, detract from the problems. Firstly, as this report points out, Eastern European immigrants are ineligible for state-funded assistance, which greatly reduces their options for seeking refuge. As a result, this policy might only be successful in dislodging them from where they might’ve felt  settled & safe to somewhere unknown and more dangerous, potentially making them even more vulnerable than before. Secondly, even if this were to be applied city-wide and was such a resounding success that every single rough sleeper in London sought help, would there be enough room to house them all? The fact that a recent study by the charity Housing Justice found the government had under-estimated the number of rough sleepers suggests this might not be the case, and if you underestimate the scale of the problem, your efforts towards tackling it are compromised before you even begin.

Lastly, when push comes to shove, isn’t there some truth to the critique that all this amounts to is an attempt by a local government agency to meet a far-fetched central government target on the cheap? Can this quick fix of hosing homeless hotspots ever be as effective as committing time and money to an increase in trained outreach workers who take time to build strong, trust-based relationships with rough sleepers so they’re no longer apprehensive of the help on offer?

I’ll happily accept that it’s difficult to put an end to all homelessness and that it’s equally hard to formulate a policy which strikes the balance between what’s effective and what’s humane. It’s just that when you weigh the positives of this approach against the negatives, this practice doesn’t really seem much of either.


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  1. […] you’re writing about doesn’t have any relevance to it. Whether it’s a post about homelessness, obesity or council tax, each one has a somewhat futile, oblivious air to it, as though […]

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