By Laura Beaumont
“Home is where the heart is” but, if that logic follows, around 320,000 hearts are lost in Britain currently. By bringing this housing crisis to my attention, Laws’ Connections prompted me to look beyond the black letter of the law and to evaluate legislation through human eyes. To exemplify this, the article shall evaluate a real-life problem: The Council’s decision to displace the homeless individuals living in my hometown of Windsor, before the Royal Wedding in May 2018. In doing so, I will draw to your attention the injustice of disregarding a human perspective in favour of a purely legal approach.
The Facts of the Case Study
In May 2018, all homeless individuals were forced to leave Windsor high-street during a police drive. The Council invoked the 1824 Vagrancy Act and 2014 Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policy Act to argue that, collectively, these rough sleepers were not ‘homeless’ since they rejected all support services. The next evening, the Council impounded a refuge bus for the same rough sleepers. The day before the wedding, the Police and Council threatened the rough sleepers with a £100 fine if caught ‘begging’ or undertaking anti-social behaviour, arguing that the homeless were “exploiting” the town.
A (Somewhat) Positive Spin
First, it would be fallacious to argue that no action has been undertaken to improve the plight of the homeless. Indeed, the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 attempted to rectify the housing crisis by introducing a pot of £73 million. However, by devolving power to ensure justice was achieved at a grass-roots level, greater onus has subsequently been put on councils to rescue the homeless. Whilst accessibility to housing support may have increased by 33%, both paperwork, and thus delay, has similarly augmented.
Second, while a limited benefit, the purpose of the threat – to act as a deterrent for future rough sleeping – was achieved by the Windsor Council. The Council has utilised a classic utilitarian argument to justify their decision. The popularity of the historically tourist-mobbed town centre has started to dwindle in recent years due to the renovation of a nearby shopping mall. In order to avoid public humiliation ahead of a wedding which could bring in much-needed revenue, the televised image of the town needed to impeccable, even at the cost of affirmative humanitarian action.
(i) Blindly following ‘The Law’
The Windsor Council’s application of the archaic 1824 Vagrancy Act follows an entirely circular argument. The Act, repealed in Scotland over four decades ago, permits the police the ability to arrest or fine those who have nothing, paradoxically, because they have nothing. On the face of it, the police’s actions were entirely legitimate – by both following the orders of the local authority and adequately enforcing the law they were doing their job. However, this goes beyond a question of law, but rather into the realm of morality and ethics.
Initially, I assumed that the study and application of law gave negligible leeway for morality, but Laws Connections completely turned this assumption on its head. Indeed, there must be room for morality in the law to ensure a high level of decency in decision-making. For example, the Big Brother and robot-style “Decision Maker”, who blindly followed and arbitrarily applied the rules in the movie ‘I, Daniel Blake’, may have done his job, but the blame for (spoiler alert) the untimely death of the poverty-stricken Dan undeniably lies in this ominous man’s hands.
However, this problem does not just exist in fictional films: at least 597 people have died on the streets in the past year. Indeed, the inhumanity of the ‘decision-makers’ was also brought to my attention when discussing Nzolameso v City of Westminster. Despite differing facts, a direct comparison can be made with the Windsor case study: both boroughs involved forcibly displacing the homeless without considering circumstance and retreated from their duties when their decision was questioned.
As a result, I stand rigid in my opinion of the Windsor Council’s actions which were, unequivocally, indecent. In the short term, fines and cautions can put a problem to bed by making the homeless hide in plain sight. However, no long-term solution will ever be found if legislators and enforcers do not look beyond the letter of the law to its spirit and consequences.
(ii) Lack of Human Emotion
Individualism should not just be a ‘pipe dream’. Yes, it would be expensive, but showing empathy would cost nothing– it is this emotion that the Windsor Council’s decision lacked. They refused to look beyond first impressions, ‘collectively’ regarding the homeless as lackadaisical. However, the homeless are often engineers, students, parents or lawyers who have simply lost their way in life, but which the state chooses to continually ignore. The jarring social experiment of the ‘Make Them Visible’ campaign epitomised this fact: when people came face-to-face with their relatives dressed like homeless people, not one was recognised. Perhaps not shockingly, not one passer-by even took a first look, let alone a second.
(iii) Less punishment, more solutions
It is wholly unnecessary to make the homeless feel like criminals like the Windsor Council did. Yet, the stigmatisation associated with homelessness will only be exacerbated by continuing to sanction such behaviour, all in the name of face, procedure and cost-cutting. A new approach is therefore needed. Just as Laws Connections offered the unique opportunity to start a conversation, so too should Parliament and beyond. Focusing on quality of life, mental health and practical considerations such as funding, society can get one step closer to ending the degradation and disempowerment of the homeless.
The Laws Connection Course changed my perception of homelessness in its entirety. The current mechanisms in place do not suffice, but why has it taken me until this course to realise that? The answer is simple – the ugly reality of poverty is often too overwhelming to confront. No more. This problem will only be resolved if we put a face on the forgotten and finally instil a sense of even-handedness and sensitivity in the application of the law for, rather than against, the homeless.
At UCL Laws, new first year students complete the ‘Laws’ Connections’ programme, a two week induction programme designed to be an inspiring introduction to the study of law and the role law plays in addressing social challenges. Through specific case studies, students will think hard about the role of lawyers while introducing important legal ideas, concepts, and skills that will be relevant throughout their degree.
Students who took part in the homelessness case study were asked to draft reflective pieces on what they learned through the programme with some pieces selected to be showcased on the Access to Justice Blog.