Hard-hearted Hackney: The homeless need help, not hounding

The London borough has reconsidered its plan to criminalise rough sleepers following a residents petition

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When neighbourhoods smarten up, long-standing residents can sometimes find it difficult to keep up. For most it’s a gradual realisation, but in the London borough of Hackney, where I was born and lived until getting priced out around five years ago, the council came up with a more efficient way of letting undesirables know they’re not wanted – and no fixed address was required to deliver the message. It’s called a Public Space Protection Order or PSPO and – until Hackney bowed to pressure from a residents’ petition on Friday – it included a provision to fine rough sleepers as much as £1,000 for the crime of not having a home to go to.

Hipster Hackney is ever ahead of the trend, so it should come as no surprise that criminalising homelessness has gone global. Last week, councillors for the Hawaiian capital of Honolulu voted to widen a ban on sitting or lying down in public, designed to deter the homeless from areas frequented by tourists.

Why so hard-hearted? In a statement on their website before the U-turn, Hackney defended its actions by insisting fines are a last resort for the most “entrenched” and “anti-social” rough sleepers. “In some of these very difficult cases, the threat of legal action has been the push that has persuaded them to seek the help that they so desperately need.” So it’s all for their own good, see?

Yet even in the realms of quick-fix, cosmetic solutions to complex problems, there are better ways. Much has been written, for instance, about the US’s Housing First programme which has cut homelessness (by 72 per cent in Utah) and costs via simple means. They give the homeless permanent housing, no strings attached.

But that’s another story. In the UK, the sorry truth is that councils aren’t acting without impetus. Measures such as the PSPO reflect a hardened public mood that expects cities to prioritise the leisure of the wealthy over the basic needs of the poor. And, as in Hackney, it take public pressure to force a reconsideration. It was British holidaymakers, remember, who last month complained about the migrants ruining their Mediterranean sea view, and it was Sheffield shoppers who insisted a Big Issue vendor be moved from his patch outside a branch of Waitrose, because his presence made them uncomfortable.

We should feel uncomfortable when we see people sleeping rough, but we should also be able to direct our discomfort not at the individuals, but at the obscene inequality which their presence represents. If “urban regeneration” only means investing in property, not people, then the number of homeless will continue to rise, even as our cities grow wealthier. Recorded instances of rough sleeping rose by 37 per cent in London in 2014.

Until we find the courage to confront this contradiction, it’s only right that Hackney’s “difficult cases” remain in view, swigging from White Lightning bottles like the world is their al fresco cafe and bringing down the property prices – the smellier and more anti-social, the better.

Facebook is not our friend

It’s a modern habit; people like to show off their children on social media. The benign side of this is a newsfeed clogged with boring baby pictures, but there’s also a darker side. We saw that last week in the viral video which depicts a very young baby being violently thrown around a room by an unidentified adult.

Whose responsibility is it to shield us from this sort of poor parenting propaganda? Child protection charities including the NSPCC believe it is down to the online platform, and have been surprised to discover that Facebook sees things differently. A company spokesperson said: “While we understand that people may be upset by this video which depicts a form of baby yoga, after careful review we found it does not break our rules.” Later this statement was updated with an agreement to remove any reported instances of the video “that are shared supporting or encouraging this behaviour”. In other cases, however, the video will remain, and there isn’t much anyone can do about it.

With all the innocence of children, adults have entrusted their relationships, their most private secrets, their memories and their very identities to privately owned internet companies, yet we seem to have trouble recognising how one-sided this relationship is. It doesn’t follow that Facebook or YouTube is bound to treat us with the concern of a loving, responsible parent.

These organisations are much more usefully thought of as the distracted teen babysitter who’ll agree to watch TV for a few hours while the kids sleep in a different room. They have no real sense of duty, just a desire to top up their pocket money.

Paloma fans are the worst

New research into how music taste reveals social status appears to have come up with some interesting findings; posh people love reggae, apparently, and commoners hate pop. That is until you note it was carried out by a Canadian university and involved only 1,595 people from Toronto and Vancouver. Were this study to be repeated in the highly class-conscious, major music-exporting nation of Britain, would a completely different set of results emerge?

Then again, if we mean “class” in the sense of decorum, propriety and that internal voice which reminds one not to engage in sex acts in public, then the UK has, in fact, been conducting its own long-term study for seven years. This is also known as Radio 2’s annual Hyde Park concert.

Last week, two unwitting research participants, a middle-aged couple from Swansea, stood trial at the Old Bailey on charges of outraging public decency at last year’s event. The 2014 line-up included rock group ELO, new wave Blondie and folk band Bellowhead, but none of the above genres soundtracked the (alleged) classy scene. As a point of interest, the act on stage at the time was Amy Winehouse’s understudy Paloma Faith, who specialises in a sort of retro-pop-soul.

An easy mistake to make

Let’s go easy on the BBC journalist (and possible Smiths fan) responsible for tweeting that the Queen “has died” last week. Is it such a big deal to mistakenly comment on the current existence of our sovereign? It’s not like we’re even sure Her Maj is definitely a real person. I’ve long suspected she may just be a 3D hologram projected on to the balcony of Buckingham Palace by Visit England.

Twitter.com/@MsEllenEJones

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