Criminalising homelessness is anti-democratic and instigates hatred

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

In the past several years, more and more people have been forced to use desperate means of survival, such as begging, living in slums or going through rubbish bins looking for food or items they can recycle or sell. But now, people who resort to these survival tactics face punishment and arrest, say Freek Spinnewijn and Marc Uhry.

Freek Spinnewijn is Director of FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Associations Working with the Homeless. Marc Uhry represents Foundation Abbé Pierre and Housing Rights Watch.

"The past several years have seen a marked decline in solidarity in our society; instead we've seen an increase in policies and laws that punish poor people and police their access to public space. In the UK, one of the punishments for a civil offence, such as an 'anti-social behaviour order', is to be denied a place on social housing lists. The UK has also recently declared squatting a criminal offence.

In Hungary, governments have gone further: they have drawn up a list of 'authorised' public behaviour, so police are now free to harass, threaten or even arrest groups they deem undesirable.

In France, more and more municipalities are banning begging, making caravan parking illegal for Roma people and travellers, treating slums as a threat to public safety, forcing prostitutes further and further from the city centres, to name but a few. But these are not isolated examples; these issues are on the rise in Spain, Lithuania, The Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and Greece as well.

The first thing that hits you is that criminalising poverty is a paradox. We are in the middle of a prolonged economic crisis, combined with severe austerity measures across Europe, which have resulted in reduced services and programmes for people struggling to make ends meet.

These conditions force more and more people to use more desperate means of survival, such as begging, living in slums or going through rubbish bins looking for food or items they can recycle or sell on. But now, people who resort to these survival tactics face punishment and arrest.

People who are vulnerable and struggling to get by are unlikely to be able to defend themselves against these laws and regulations because they might not be aware of their rights or of the judicial process, and cannot afford to pay for legal defence.

This kind of policing of extreme poverty does not respect individual rights. And, of course, what do we expect when people are left without any means of survival? Using the police and the courts to try to shift the problem, rather than address the real causes, just shifts the same individuals, the same families, from squat to squat, from slum to slum and from place to place. 

The criminalisation of poverty forces us to look at the relationship between European democracies and the reality experienced by those at the margins of our societies. At the core of the democratic ideal is the protection of all its members by ensuring access to rights and remedies. The existence of a set of fundamental rights, which overrules any judicial or administrative system, is part of the genetic make-up of democracies and sets them apart from other political systems.

Fundamental rights have been the foundation of European democracies since the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789, followed by the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War II, the founding texts of the Council of Europe and, more recently, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. But European countries are moving away from this rights-based tradition to a security paradigm, enforced by the police in the name of 'public safety'.

This repressive treatment of people at the margins of our societies reflects a new 'panic' policy for public spaces. Despite claims that our cities are culturally and socially mixed and therefore vibrant, public spaces are now seen as places in which citizens pose a threat to each other.

So our institutions focus on 'anti-terrorism', install closed circuit security cameras, and send in the police to deal with issues, especially in low-income neighbourhoods. As a result, co-existence between citizens is considered, first and foremost, as a problem, and public intervention is reduced to assessing the potential risks of conflicts that might arise.

This obsession with protecting privacy, with excessive security controls at our airports, etc. are excessive to the point of being ludicrous: it's as if our society is reduced to a collection of potential threats – threats that we pose to ourselves, which is untenable in the long run, for our ability to work and live collectively as well as for individual mental wellbeing.

This repressive and harsh treatment of vulnerable people, those at the edges of our societies, especially in terms of the use of public space, is only a symptom of a broader and growing phenomenon of divide and conquer, of setting individuals and groups against each other, which is sustained by institutions that are locked into a paranoid policy of managing public spaces based on an philosophy of suspicion and permanent control which are as destructive as they as they are costly and futile.  

To get rid of poverty in public spaces we have to build more housing, making administrative policies transparent and understandable and enable everyone to access their social rights. Houses can't be built out of truncheons and batons.

The police and the justice system have enough real and serious problems to deal with; they should not be wasting time and money reprimanding the poor and vulnerable.

Because criminalising homelessness, especially in public spaces, is futile, anti-democratic, illegal and indicates a self-hatred within our society, FEANTSA (the European Federation of National Associations Working with the Homeless) and Housing Rights Watch are calling on citizens, organisations, lawyers, judges, police, elected officials and policy makers to use the means that we have: the law, politics, the media, social movements, to say 'stop'.

Let's create a European movement that supports civic rights and that reconciles social movements and human rights defenders. Poverty and diversity shouldn't force us to use repressive, coercive policies; instead we should be inspired to seek solidarity – because together we can stop this. Because poverty is not a crime, it's a scandal!"

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