Portsmouth City Council Must Support Homeless People, Not Scapegoat Them

Portsmouth resident and community activist, Alan Burgess, responds to UKIP’s Cllr Galloway and his motion for ‘the local police force to be more vigilant and to help the Council to remove the ever increasing beggars and rough sleepers that are beginning to dominate the city’, in a deputation he will give at the Full Council meeting on Tuesday 11th July.

In his recent motion [see below] Cllr Colin Galloway not only uses the term ‘unwelcome detritus’ to describe human beings, but following widespread outrage and criticism in response to the motion, emphasised in the press that his use of the phrase ‘unwelcome detritus’ to describe people still stood.

What seems to be beyond the grasp of Cllr Galloway is the risk his inflammatory language is adding to an already problematic situation. Currently a homeless man or woman is at risk of violence, with a case earlier this year of a local homeless man’s possessions being urinated on and set on fire. Describing homeless people as ‘detritus’ publicly, in the press, will increase this risk. This language is wholly unacceptable, I and the assembled protesters from Portsmouth call on Cllr Galloway to resign.

Cllr Galloway does not stop at offensive language directed at the vulnerable. He calls on the police to ‘remove’ beggars and rough sleepers. As others have pointed out this sounds like internment, and is likely to create more problems than it will solve. The Council’s Homeless Working Group report – a working group that includes Cllr Galloway – includes a section on enforcement. It is very clear that the police have no powers to round up rough sleepers, and even if they had, what would the police do with 60 or more people to care for? Already the police complain that mental health sufferers from the wider community are landing in their cells due to a lack of adequate provision.

Interestingly  Superintendent Will Schofield usefully pointed out to the Homeless Working Group that, according to law, the police must direct the rough sleeper to accommodation. Presumably this would mean police escorting rough sleepers to the counter of Housing Options at the Civic?

And what are the options at Housing Options?

Section 5.3 of the Homeless Working Group report states:

The number of supported bed spaces in the City is 205, of which 160 is for single people. During the past year there have been 387 referrals for supported housing from single people.

In other words, demand outstrips capacity by 242%. This, of course, may be why people sleep rough: there is insufficient capacity provided by public services.

This crisis in public provision has a context. Cuts to local government budgets from central government, a sharp decline in the availability of social housing and a sharp increase in rent for private accommodation. Council cannot passively stand by and watch while the combination of these forces crush the most vulnerable in our community.

As a proud member of PACT, Portsmouth Against the Cuts Together, I can say confidently that the Council were warned of the impact of cuts and council worker redundancy back in 2012. The Council’s own latest budget papers state:

Over the past 6 years (since 2011/12), Central Government funding to Portsmouth City Council has reduced by over £68m (amounting a 44% cut in total Government Funding).

However I must stress to the council that it is comprehensively failing in its duty by failing to support those most in need in our community. The Council urgently need sufficient resources to house rough sleepers, not scapegoat them.

The leader of the council Donna Jones commented in The News on 5th January 2017:

This isn’t about housing or money, this is about supporting people’s mental health needs.

When I read this I thought I had fallen down a rabbit hole. On what planet does the leader of the council reside? Is it a planet where the homeless  – i.e. people without a home  – do not have a housing need? If this is the leadership of the council, it is a leadership that needs to be robustly challenged.

I would like to finish by commending the work of the Homeless Working Group and the supporting workers of the council. I would like to stress that this work is urgent and needs the fastest response possible.

There are many in our community that are watching the development of this issue as it unfolds. We ask the council to look closely at this matter and provide progressive and humane responses as soon as possible.

This article is based on a deputation to Full Council by Alan Burgess on 11th July 2017. Alan is currently supporting John Sutton, a rough sleeper who is determined to find work and get off the streets, and will also be giving a deputation at Full Council in relation to the UKIP motion. Ahead of the Full Council meeting, a protest will take place at the Guildhall Square.

The full text of Cllr Galloway’s original motion is as follows:

Sometimes it is not necessary to read the national newspapers to discover the truth. Sometimes it is right under our very noses. To say that homelessness has increased fivefold since two years ago is patently obvious with a cursory walk around our own city. I have sat on a Homeless Committee for a year now and nothing has happened. There is a lot of talk and a lot of good intentions but virtually no action. I believe that we have been going about this the wrong way, but now we need help. Every day there are at least four or five beggars – yes beggars, note I didn’t say homeless, who position themselves in shop doorways in Commercial Road precinct. Walk down that same precinct at night and you will see a lot more taking up temporary residence in their preferred doorways. Portsmouth City is no longer a welcoming city to either business or tourist because it seems we prefer to have vagrants.

It is time to get our Police and Crime Commissioner to put pressure on his police force to help us clean up this unwelcome detritus. These beggars, vagrants, rough sleepers, homeless, troubled folks or whatever label you want to put on them must be removed from our city and placed in specific care whether they want to or not. We have tried the soft approach and have found it wanting. It’s time for some serious tough love. We need to save our city and we need to save these lost souls. This Chamber asks the Leader of the Council to write to the Police and Crime Commissioner to instruct the local police force to be more vigilant and to help the Council to remove the ever increasing beggars and rough sleepers that are beginning to dominate the city.

Image of Fratton street art by Sarah Cheverton.