There's no such thing as the wrong sort of homeless person

'Presumably these people are under some moral obligation to freeze in the discomfort of their own homes'
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The Independent Online

The season of goodwill is not officially over until the festive decorations come down on Twelfth Night. But already there are plentiful signs that the goodwill displayed over the holiday period has not gone deep at all. One of the odd conundrums of this time of giving has long been the feverish enthusiasm with which we all agree that over Christmas nobody should be sleeping rough.

The season of goodwill is not officially over until the festive decorations come down on Twelfth Night. But already there are plentiful signs that the goodwill displayed over the holiday period has not gone deep at all. One of the odd conundrums of this time of giving has long been the feverish enthusiasm with which we all agree that over Christmas nobody should be sleeping rough.

Partly, it's a sentimental tradition, which has evolved to ease our consciences at the time of the year when we celebrate warmth and plenty. But it's also overtly religious. Even the most resolutely secular among us must realise that this celebration centres on a couple receiving a bed for the night. What kind of a mockery would we be making of the nativity if, at this of all times, we did not, as a society, act like the innkeeper?

Except that the innkeeper wasn't offering a stable expressly because it was Christmas. How could he have been? He was, presumably, doing just what he'd be doing any day of the year. Which is what makes our focus on Christmas as the one time of year when this sort of generosity should be indulged, a little strange.

Stranger still is the spat that has blown up between a leading charity and the Government. When its temporary shelters closed on Friday, the homeless charity Crisis was obliged to turn away of 75 souls. The chief executive of Crisis, Shaks Ghosh, made the problem public on Radio 4, declaring: "My fear is - Crisis is really, really worried - that people are actually going to be dying in doorways because the weather is so cold."

Louise Casey, the outspoken head of the Government's Rough Sleepers Unit, gave these comments short shrift, going as far as to suggest that Crisis was "scaremongering", in the hope of increasing donations.

Ms Casey has been backed by another charity, Thames Reach, whose director, Jeremy Swain, has this to say: "Crisis is a very good thing as it brings people together at Christmas. They can have a haircut and other help but the vast majority of them are not really homeless. I would like to see the list of the 75 people they mention. I bet they actually have somewhere to go."

Mr Swain's argument is that many people who come to the Crisis shelters are Britain's homegrown "bogus asylum-seekers", coming to the shelters out of mere poverty or loneliness rather than housing need. Presumably these people are under some moral obligation to freeze to death in the discomfort of their own homes. Surely it stands to reason that you'd have to be pretty desperate to feign homelessness over Christmas - desperate enough surely not to be classed as undeserving?

If such hairsbreadth classifications of need and greed smack of politics rather than charity, then there are good reasons for this. Thames Reach works all year round with the homeless. Its street level contact and assessment teams, or CAT teams, liaise with the homeless on the streets and try to find ways of housing them, in line with the policies of the Rough Sleepers Unit. The Unit's target is to reduce the numbers of rough sleepers to about 600 by next year.

In this it has had some success, with Shelter confirming that the number of homeless has dropped by about a third this year - although not in central London, where the problem is at its worst and most visible.

But Crisis, which spends the rest of the year not just fund-raising but also working as an independent research and pressure group, has been critical of street workers such as those at Thames Reach, alleging that in order to meet government targets, they concentrate on getting off the streets those who are easiest to help, and paying less attention to "the entrenched". These are usually men with mental health or addiction problems.

But Crisis's own distinction is an interesting one. If addiction is not a mental health problem, then it is difficult to see what is actually is. Certainly the key to breaking addiction lies in the mind and not the body, with an estimated 70 per cent of rough sleepers suffering drug problems, this is a definition that clearly needs to be sorted out. Again and again, those who are charged with helping the homeless make statements which suggest that they do not understand that addiction not a symptom of fecklessness but of disease.

Ms Casey herself had fostered this misapprehension in the run-up to Christmas this year. She warned controversially in October that the public should not give money to beggars, but to homeless charities instead. She stated that giving money to beggars was "trapping them into drug addiction", with the implication that if you ran out of money to buy drugs then you shrugged off your addiction to them. This is a little like saying that a schizophrenic will give up listening to his internal voices if he is told his prescription isn't going to be renewed.

Such views lead directly to cases such as that of the Cambridge Two, Ruth Wyner and John Brock, jailed for lengthy sentences after an undercover police operation found them guilty of turning a blind eye to drug dealing in the homeless centre where they both worked. The judge in their case clearly felt drug addicts to be "undeserving", and plenty of others agree with him. Although Ms Wyner and Mr Brock were released from their custodial sentences, their appeal against their convictions was refused late last year. Their names have not been cleared.

The two remain victims of the mean and tiny increments by which we judge the deserving and the undeserving. And many other charity workers fall victim to this mentality, though not quite so spectacularly. It has to be assumed, for example, that Mr Swain does not really spend his working life trying to help the homeless, running out of sympathy when it comes to the poor and the lonely. He just finds himself making statements that sound like he does, because he constantly has to justify his own position.

Ms Casey, homelessness Tsarina to Keith Hellawell's drugs Tsar, is in an even more invidious position. Charged by the Government with helping the homeless, she is compelled at the same time to remain loyal to a government policy which insists on demonising drug users, who are quite often the very same people as those the Government is committed to helping if the label on their difficulties is the right one - homelessness - rather than the wrong one - addiction.

So Happy New Year - but only if you fall into one of those categories of people whose troubles have not forced them to surrender the right to be deserving of happiness.

* d.orr@independent.co.uk

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