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Homeless teenager. Photo: wikimedia commons

Homeless teenager. Photo: wikimedia commons

PSPOs are another heartless and poorly conceived reaction to problems caused by austerity, argues Karen Buckley

Anyone walking around Manchester’s booming, shiny and modern city centre will inevitably see its ever increasing and visible homeless population. It’s heart-breaking and disturbing to see, especially when it’s cold (or even worse, freezing) and it’s startlingly at odds with the obvious wealth and prosperity flooding into Manchester.

Rough sleepers are some of our most vulnerable citizens and they’ve been especially affected by years of punishing, unnecessary and ideological austerity. This has meant many valuable local services (including services and provision for the homeless) have been cut or diminished.  Moreover, as a nation, we have a housing crisis. The Tories have allowed an unregulated private rental sector to flourish, which has enabled ever increasing rents. At the same time, they have continued in the footsteps of previous neo-liberal governments and failed to build council housing. Not surprisingly, there is now a chronic lack of affordable homes to rent. Then we have the failure and fiasco of the Universal Credit roll out, which has pushed many people into poverty and desperation. Not surprisingly, homelessness had risen exponentially in the UK.

Manchester City Council has recently announced that it wants to introduce Public Space Protection Orders (PSPO). The consultation on this says it wants to give the police and council an extra tool to help tackle behaviour in Manchester City Centre, which has a negative impact on people in the city centre or their environment.  However, what is not said is that PSPOs will adversely affect Manchester’s homeless and rough sleeping population (who are not mentioned at all in this document).

Instead, the consultation asks people to select what behaviour they wish to answer questions on such as alcohol, urinating, defecating, commercial waste, needles, tents, and begging. It asks you to tick if these are a problem (and to what extent), and if you agree or disagree that those responsible for enforcing the PSPO should have the power to require someone to provide details of their identity, pick up litter, move on if considered to be obstructing, or move a tent if it’s considered a health and safety risk or attracting vermin. There’s also a question on commercial waste and whether people should clean up spillages from this (which seems odd given the other questions and their clear link to rough sleepers). At the end there’s a box where people can give their opinions, but that’s it, nothing about rough sleepers having nowhere else to go or that’s there’s very few public toilets in Manchester city centre. It’s like the consultation has been written by a hard right Victorian Tory intent on treating homeless rough sleepers as if they’re ‘feckless and undeserving’ and must be punished and banished to the margins of society.

And it’s not only in Manchester, increasingly PSPOs are being deployed by local councils in their ‘regenerated’ (or should that be gentrified?) city centre areas in order to get rid of unacceptable behaviour in public spaces. It’s recently been argued that PSPOs are a new form of spatial control order being introduced throughout England and Wales that severely limit citizens’ freedoms within the city. PSPOs came into existence under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Similar to the much-derided anti-social behaviour orders (asbos), PSPOs allow for broad powers to criminalise behaviour that is not normally criminal. But where asbos were directed at individuals, PSPOs are geographically defined, making predefined activities within a mapped area prosecutable.

What is extremely worrying about this is PSPO’s are often aimed at the poor and the vulnerable. Homeless rough sleepers, and the charities that do their best to keep them alive, will be pushed to the margins of society where we can’t see them and where they can be forgotten. Moreover, they’ll be at increased risk of being criminalised. It is short sighted and exposes Manchester City Council as narrow minded and mean.

Homeless, rough sleeping and poverty can devastate human beings and the resulting behaviour can sometimes be challenging and not pretty. And yes, there’s some anti-social behaviour amongst this group, but scapegoating and crimininalising them (or some of them) is most definitely not the answer. Nor is sweeping it away if it looks ugly in our shiny, rich and prosperous city centre(s). Seeing the desperate lives on our city centre streets can be very difficult. Many have took to taking the drug Spice as a way of coping with the often complex issues in their lives and lay strewn on our streets looking half dead.  But this should hold us to account and tell us we must do something to stop this huge injustice going on under our noses. We need to end ideological austerity in our extremely wealthy country, we need a progressive government that helps our homeless sisters and brothers, which recognises their humanity and provides the wrap-around services and housing they need to prosper. In mass numbers we need to be shouting from the streets and rooftops that we do not accept the outrage of homelessness anymore.

As a People’s Assembly activist, I attended a recent meeting organised by Greater Manchester Housing Action and Tenants Union UK against the proposed PSPOs. Passions were high and there were many great ideas. Joint plans involving various campaigns, activists, individuals and Labour councillors are now being drawn up on the various actions we can take to stop the imposition of PSPOs. Let’s hope that together we can achieve this. It definitely won’t happen unless we try!

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The consultation finishes on 8/4/19. You can see and complete the consultation by following this link.

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