Monday, 27 July 2015

Rough Sleepers in Rochdale!

THE letter below originally sent to the Rochdale Observer has been forwarded to Northern Voices by the local author Andrew Wastling, and we are invited to place it on our Blog:

Dear “ Your Views “ Rochdale Observer,

"A serious breach of our Common Law and Magna Carta rights ?"
It was unfortunate in the extreme and uninformed to an blindingly obvious degree that hairdressing salon owner , and former Lib Dem Councillor ,Greg  Couzens should chose to publicly announce only a day before a weekend of national events to celebrate armed forces day that :
We have no rough sleepers in Rochdale. All of them have home addresses, so this is about clamping down on the begging and the alcohol consumption within the town centre." [1].
Unfortunate ,because his comments come just as a greater Manchester Supported Tenancies Service reveal an increasing number of ex-servicemen and women are facing homelessness, citing the one in ten homeless people in the UK have a military background stating in the Manchester Evening News that :  "It’s a travesty that men and women who have served their country find themselves in a homeless situation”, [2].

Uninformed , because his claim that :
'We have no rough sleepers in Rochdale' flies in the face of the latest governmnet evidence . Only three months ago the Observers sister paper the MEN reported that : 
"The number of people sleeping rough in Greater Manchester has risen by nearly 50 per cent in a year, according to official figures - but campaigners say it is much more. Statistics show there were 101 rough sleepers in the region in autumn 2014, 31 more than the same time the previous year. In Manchester, the figure was up 79pc from 24 to 43.The city now has more rough sleepers than anywhere outside London. Rochdale saw a rise from six to 17, and Salford from seven to 14" ,

These latest statistics were reported extensively only a few months ago in 'Number of people sleeping rough in Greater Manchester soars by 50pc in a year', Manchester Evening News, 1.III.2015 , [3].
With Housing & Homelessness Campaigners arguing official figures are likely to be a significant underestimate as they are based on a snapshot of a single night.
Also this week we have seen a homeless charity Manchester Angels go so far as to publicly acuse a major Greater Manchester Council of actually “lying” over the level of rough sleepers saying :
"The number of people sleeping rough in Greater Manchester has risen by nearly 50% cent in a year according to council statistics “, concluding :"However, we’re aware that these yearly audits - conducted one night a year in well lit areas - don’t show a true reflection on how many homeless people there are “, [4].

I accept fully that Mr. Couzens may well have been unable to find any rough sleepers on the night when he looked but that does not mean they are not there every other night of the week.

Simply scapegoat homeless people & beggars at the end of The Walk for the failure of our town centres business seeks to apportion blame on a handful of people whohave been sanctioned by the DWP or made  homeless through repossesion or other life changing traumas is not worthy of someone of  Mr. Couzens calibre as a businesman in our own  when the reasons for the failure of our town centre over decades are far more complex and long-standing than the beggars that have become a semi-permanent feature of the Rochdale town centre landscape over the course of the past five years smacks of misguided desperation to many.

To an extent he is absolutley right that we do not want to see beggars and homeless people sat on pieces of cardboard , or scavenging food from bins , however we must also look to and tackle the underlying causes of such behaviour not just move them on to somewhere less visible – out of sight – does not mean problem remedied.

What I wonder was the cause of failing businesses in Rochdale town centre before we had this supposed infestation of beggars ? Unfortunately I can't help but think Scape goat “ & “Convenientspring immediately to mind in this instance.

It is also deeply worrying that the solution to beggars seems to be to use dispersal orders to remove them from view. Apart from the fact they will simply move the problem somewhere else it taps into the current anti-humanistic narrative that supports wideley unpopular street spikes on the outside of shops and seeks to still further demonise the poor and clearly damadged in our society . In the Homless magazine The Pavement , Connor Johnston, a barrister specialising in homelessness also quite rightly points out that : 

'The purpose of these orders is to clamp down on antisocial or nuisance behaviour that impacts on the quality of life of those in the locality. There is nothing inherently antisocial about a person being forced to sleep rough and we should not be criminalising it.'
'The effect of it is simply going to be to shunt homeless people to another borough. This won’t solve anything beyond making our streets a bit ‘shinier’ and will almost certainly just make it harder for those sleeping rough to access the support services they rely on.'[8].

More concerning from the individual civil liberties point of view is the unavoidable  issue around "Dispersal Orders" is  that they are an extension of previous powers, but the key difference is that they can now be applied in any place, at any time.

Previously, areas had to be declared dispersal zones in advance, after a relatively lengthy consultation process. Now any area can be declared a dispersal zone on the spot: a police officer need only gain authorisation from his or her inspector over the phone.

The only condition for serving a 'Section 34' dispersal notice is that they 'suspect' that a person's behaviour 'is likely to contribute' to causing 'harassment, alarm or distress'.

A Manifesto Club briefing document investigated the use of these powers and found that some police forces are now declaring dispersal zones before almost any kind of public gathering, including political protests, which poses a direct threat to freedom of speech and assembly.

The condition for issuing a dispersal order is so low that it can be used against almost anyone. Those barred from public places include homeless people, a disabled man handing out food for the homeless who was issued with a dispersal notice which barred him from central Brighton, making it a crime for him to re-enter the area, and football supporters who had pulled up by the side of the road in an isolated area.

Just to make it crystal clear I am not in any way anti-Police and I am certainly not against the rule of law and our democratic legal system which has enshrined our cherished liberties and rights to protest. But like many people I am very concerned about a little-noticed part of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, passed last October, which has given the police a roaming power to bar people from public spaces

New legislation that  writers in The Ecologist state   :

'Allows them to exclude people for anything from street drinking to looking suspicious, being homeless, protesting, or merely 'congregating'. This represents a serious breach of our Common Law and Magna Carta rights.'

This is a regressive , reactionary , rather than a modern progressive ,solution to an age old problem  that harkens back to a less enlightend era described in for example local Rochdale writer Jack Hiltons , Caliban Shrieks 1935Hilton vividly described the medieval experience of the sessions in 1575 when the poor  :
'Vagabonds were sentenced to be branded, five to be hanged , and eight set to service.  Service was unvarnished slavery.  And it was from the stress of such times that humanity set up it's workhouses.  We still have them with us.'

And in the local Means tests for Public Assistance in the middle 1930's  when he asked :

'What sort of civilised action in such callousness...when you take away the last straw off the poor blighter, it's a punishment that eats into his bone ?' , [9].

We already have in the Town Centre some superb Community Support Officers who already do an excellent & difficult job in an exempary proffessional and diplomatic manner - perhaps a better solution would be to invest in more of this sory of community policing as well as not continue with any more cuts to frontline homelss provision or to GMP's policing budget as planned ?

Unfortunatley " Dispersal Orders " alone won’t solve anything beyond perhaps making the street outside the former Lib Dem Councillor Couzens shop a bit more ‘ up -market “ and possibly ease his troubled social conscience removing some of the less palatable results of the past five years of Conservative & Liberal Democrat Coalition government will almost certainly just make it harder for those sleeping rough to access the support services they rely on.

If the number of beggars alone was any concrete indication of economic failure then Manchester City Centre , especially Piccadilly gardens , would be in near economic meltdown .As it is Manchester is set to compete with Paris& Berlin in the next five years.
As single homeless Charity Crisis’s say :
'While it’s right that the police have the power to tackle genuine criminals, covering a complex issue with a wide-ranging PSPO could lead to people in dire need of support facing a counterproductive arrest or fine.
'Rough sleepers deserve better than to be treated as a nuisance – they may have suffered a relationship breakdown, a bereavement or domestic abuse. Instead, people need long-term, dedicated support to move away from the streets for good.'
This is the worst type of NIMBY-ism from some elements of our business community, [ people who in the past in the guise of the High Street Foundation [4] have not been slow at asking for a handout from the public purse many times themselves ]; And may well have effect of it is simply shunting homeless people to another part of the town.
With Rochdale Council removing support to the High Street Foundation [6] of which Mr. Couzens vice chairman this week it's tempting to think Mr.Couzens may well want to clear a personal pitch to rattle a begging bowl at the corner The Walk for himself of in very near future?

If Mr.Couzens is so concerned about people giving money to beggars rather than spending it on expensive designer haircuts perhaps he could use his considerable influence within the local business community to ensure any out of date food is sent direct to local food banks rather than skipped, or have official donation points for vulnerable & poor people installed at the end of The Walk were shoppers can donate , or perhaps organise some donations form the relative; wealthy business community direct to local charities ?
I understand that there is a perfectly serviceable Deli halfway along the Walk that may well soon have the rent paid up front for some time – maybe our local business community could turn this otherwise redundant building into a soup kitchen for struggling pensioners or the hungry ?

Having the luxury of inhabiting a large former Vicarage I doubt Mr. Couzens or his family have ever spent many nights cold , hungry or alone on the streets of Rochdale so it's perhaps understandable that his lack of lived experience” , [ as with so many other local decision makers ] , renders him totally unable to empathise with rough sleepers.
It also clear that living so close to a place of worship has not by some kind of spiritual osmosis given Mr . Couzens  a more compassionate view to the very many people in this town, who often through absolutely no fault of their own, now live s so much less fortunate than his own.

Perhaps he should take time out from his busy schedule sometime and ask his nearby Vicar about the Chrtistian theory & practice of

Psalm 113:7
He raiseth the poor out of the dust , and lifteth the needy out of the dunghill  - King James Bible.

Yours faithfully
[1]." Move on or face arrest 'beggars' warned" , Rochdale Observer, 27.VI.2015
[2]. One in ten homeless people nationally are ex-service personnel” , Manchester Evening News ,26.VI.2015 , please see link at :
[ ].

[3].Salford service reaches out to ex-Armed Forces as growing number face homelessness” , Mancunian Matters,27.VI.2015 , please see link at :
[ ].
[4 ].” Charity accuse Manchester City Council of lying about homeless figures “ . Mancunian Matters , 26.VI.2015, [ ].
[5]. " Number of people sleeping rough in Greater Manchester soars by 50pc in a year" , Manchester Evening News ,1.III.2015 ,
[6]. Council pulls support for the High Street Foundation “ , Rochdale Online , 26.VI.2015
[ ].
[7]. " Number of people sleeping rough in Greater Manchester soars by 50pc in a year" , Manchester Evening News ,1.III.2015 ,
[ ]
[9]. " Caliban Shrieks " , Jack Hilton , London , 1935

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