A guest post by Samir Jeraj, outlining the progress of events in the London borough of Hackney, where a PSPO banning homelessness was successfully overturned by residents.
Soon after the May 2015 elections, our local newspaper The Hackney Citizen published a warning from Crisis, a national homelessness charity. Their Chief Executive, Jon Sparkes, was warning that a new ‘Public Space Protection Order’ from Hackney Council would criminalise homeless people. Sophie Linden, the Councillor in charge of the PSPO, said: ‘The level of street drinking, persistent rough sleeping and the associated anti-social behaviour in the area reached the point that we had to take further action on behalf of local residents, community and businesses.’
It came as news to most of us in Hackney. No one I knew in housing or activist circles had heard about the PSPO. We were shocked, but not surprised that Hackney Council had decided to do this. A number of councils in London and in the UK have introduced punitive measures against homeless people with the aim of driving them out of shopping districts and tourist areas.
We weren’t the only people who hadn’t been consulted on the PSPO. The company responsible for the Broadway Market and representing the traders had not been consulted. Digging further, it was unclear whether anything other than previous complaints had been used to formulate the policy – i.e. there was no consultation on the order.
The PSPO set out a number of behaviours that would be punishable by a fine. These included rough sleeping, begging, street drinking, and public urination. It also set out the area it would apply, centred around London Fields and Broadway Market.
Activists from local groups, such as Digs Hackney Renters, challenged elected councillors on the policy. Some councillors privately said they’d never heard of it, others took to social media to defend the policy. One of the lines they were given were that these fines would be a ‘last resort’, something that no one with experience of homelessness or harassment by the Police or Council enforcement would believe. To us, the PSPO enabled enforcement like the Police and Council wardens to harass homeless people and effectively move them on.
As the outcry grew, activists sprung into action. Several of us visited local homelessness support services, others combed over the minutes of council meetings, and legal experts examined the legality of the PSPO and the process. What we found was a homelessness process that was failing people, a decision that had no public scrutiny or published evidence, and a legal framework that was questionable at the least. The local press requested the evidence and reports justifying the PSPO through a Freedom of Information Request. Hackney Council was still publicly defending the action, directing critics on social media to a prepared statement on their website.
What took the campaign up a level was when Zahira Patel, a former Hackney resident, lawyer, and first-time activist, started a Change.Org petition. Within hours it had become huge. People were outraged by the idea that fining people who were on the streets was a way to help them. The national media picked up on the story, and Hackney celebrities such as Ellie Goulding lambasted the council. Pressure was mounting on a council whose Labour administration had prided itself on being progressive.
Local activists looked to how they could confront the PSPO. In a social media-friendly campaign, they descended on London Fields (home to many a picnic with wine or a few cans) and challenged ‘Linden’s Law’. We looked at how we could attend a council meeting and directly challenge councillors through public questions. Campaigners also set a date for a protest outside the City Hall – this attracted well over 1000 RSVPs on Facebook.
The Council caved. First on including rough-sleeping. However, those involved in the campaign recognised that the whole order itself was a licence to harass, and called for it to be completely scrapped. The Council gave up the fight a few days later, just before the scheduled protest – which we turned into a celebration of our victory. Some local councillors were still noticeably bitter about it and clearly hadn’t learned their lesson. Indeed, police erroneously continued handing out notices to homeless people about the PSPO after it had been scrapped.