by Michael Angerer
The City of Oxford has a sad reputation for its particularly high number of homeless people; according to city council data, 61 rough sleepers were recorded in 2017, up from 33 in 2016. At the beginning of February this year, the city council had to activate its Severe Weather Emergency Protocol in order to make additional beds in shelters available; as temperatures descend below zero, rough sleepers are exposed to the elemental forces of nature that can endanger their lives. These conditions affect all homeless people in Oxford; but although their respective situation may, to the casual observer, appear very similar or even indistinguishable, it is impossible to reduce the problem to a chain of elementary causes and effects. It is such dangerous oversimplification that is the basis of the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which makes rough sleeping illegal and is, for some reason, still in force in England and Wales.
This sort of simplistic approach has led to a rather bizarre situation in the Cambridgeshire city of Ely, which has just over 20,000 inhabitants: on 21 February 2018, Policing East Cambridgeshire announced on their Facebook page that ‘there are no rough sleepers in Ely’. According to them, all supposedly homeless people left on the streets are out to take advantage of the pity of upstanding citizens; consequently, people are strongly discouraged from giving beggars money, and should, if anything, give food and drink instead. Their certainty stems from the fact that, in cooperation with East Cambridgeshire District Council, they claim to have offered shelter to all rough sleepers in city. Here, we may witness an instance of breaking a complex reality down into simple elements of causation: housing has already been offered; therefore, all those remaining on the streets must be fraudsters.
Now this is reminiscent of the all too easy solutions found in so many detective stories; perhaps the officers of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary are fond of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in which every cause and effect can be effectively retraced. The great detective always succeeds in dividing a confusing situation into simple units that, when properly put together, can only lead to one deduction; truly, everything is elementary, my dear Watson, in the world of the detective story. There is no possibility of divergence or any regard whatsoever for the psychological moment; all this gives way to a mechanistic understanding of the interplay of material elements. Such an abstraction of the human being into world of simple facts, however, can only lead to unreasonable expectations of what reality should be like.
There has, of course, been criticism of the police announcement: local residents have mentioned specific individuals still sleeping on the streets of Ely, who do not deserve to be dismissed as fraudsters. But the police have met such criticism with a rather chilling statement in a Facebook comment: ‘I don’t like to get drawn into individual cases’. That, in fact, is exactly the problem of the initial blanket statement: the assumption seems to be that since one solution has been offered, the entire problem must have been been solved; the police, it appears, are under the impression that they are dealing with elemental causes and effects, without any nuance whatsoever. That, consequently, all remaining rough sleepers should be accused of being frauds trying to turn a profit is rather ridiculous.
This is not to say that the police are completely wrong in their assessment of the situation: it may well be that some people do take advantage of others’ compassion, pretending to be homeless in order to make more money as a beggar; nor is giving food instead of money generally bad advice. But the danger here lies in promoting a view of the problem as a clean-cut affair governed by elemental causes; rather, it may help to think of it as influenced by many small, individual elements that all feed into the general situation. There may be many reasons not to take up the offer of help that was made available, and not all need be nefarious. The police’s reminder that ‘[b]egging is a criminal offence under the Vagrancy Act 1824 and officers will be taking positive action to address the issue’ will only encourage harmful over-generalisation and criminalisation.
The disillusioning reality is that there are no simple solutions to the problem; there are many different causes, many different aspects, many different ways to help, and none of these are exclusive. Of course, some degree of generalisation can be very helpful in order to formulate overarching strategies, and the City of Oxford is quite active in this respect: in 2017, the City Conversation has been established as a partnership of different organisations to address the problem. But ultimately, the best one can do is to ‘get drawn into individual cases’, to focus on the single elements within the general situation. Broad, elemental attempts to address what is perceived as an elemental issue cannot be comprehensive – rough approaches cannot take care of such a delicate task. In no way is this problem elementary.