There’s a night club right next door to the building I live in. Last night, I stood and watched two police officers laughing and joking with the doorman. A few minutes into their chat, a homeless man — drunk or high or both — passed by and almost automatically asked the male police officer for a pound.
“I cannot fucking believe that you just asked a copper for money. You do know that begging is illegal, don’t you?”
My grandfather was a police officer with the Metropolitan Police in the 60s and 70s. I have no illusions about police officers being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in any kind of black and white sheriffs vs bandits way but I do know that police officers, simply speaking to a member of the public, in a non-aggressive setting, should not swear at them.
The homeless man needed help. But the police are not there to help him. The police are there to ensure that the city centre — where banning orders are in effect — is free of homeless people and that they are contained in the Prince of Wales are.
‘Contained’. I rode my bike down the Prince of Wales road last night and saw the collision between the homeless people, problem drinkers and drug-dependent individuals and the clubbers out for a night out. It is a febrile, violent atmosphere. Men spit on the homeless and laugh in their faces. Women titter totter by them without even looking down. More violent drunks who rough sleep, threaten and cajole people.
This is not a city functioning in a healthy way. This is city where homelessness has become a profound crisis.
And what happens?
The police are cosy with the door staff at clubs. The door staff — as I witnessed on a number of occasions last night (and have seen many times before) — act like a paramilitary police force. I witnessed a door man verbally abusing a homeless man who was on the street outside the club, begging with his dog. He told the homeless man to move on: “You can’t be there.” But he doesn’t own that piece of pavement, nor does he have police powers.
We live in a state where privately employed goons, in uniforms that mimic the tactical wear sported by firearms officers and special forces units in the military, can act like bullies and ascribe to themselves a set of powers that the law does not gift them.
I was born in Norwich. If my life had taken a couple more wrong turns, I could be one of those homeless people on those streets, rather than a journalist attempting to tell even a small part of their stories.
We — and it is all of us — are letting people live in misery and tolerating some of them dying. In a civilised, abundantly rich society like modern Britain, there is no excuse for leaving people to sleep on the streets. It is not enough to rely on religious groups — which have their own agendas — and charities to support these people. I want to see a greater proportion of the tax I pay spent on helping these people and not on infrastructure projects shaped like white elephants or tax cuts for those who already have quite enough.
This is a crisis. It cannot be left like this. Let’s devise some solutions. I’ll write about what I think we could do, next time.