I’m going to write a lot more about homelessness in the UK – particularly in Cardiff – in the weeks to come, but I want to take time to properly research the issue before spewing my words all over your screen. So for now you’ll have to make do with a brief retelling of the incident that made me want to look deeper into this worsening situation.
Last night, on my way home from work, I walked past two Police Community Support Officers who were stood over a sleeping homeless man, just off Queen Street (Cardiff’s main shopping street). I was on the phone to my wife at the time and while we chatted about what we were having for supper I watched one of the PCSOs wake the man, help him up and begin talking to him. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but kept watching. The homeless guy shrugged, rubbed his head, twisted and turned looking uncomfortable. The second PCSO made an “off you go” gesture and the homeless man picked up his thin cardboard “bed” and his filthy sleeping bag and wandered off.
“I think I’ve just seen two cops telling a homeless guy to move,” I said to my wife on the phone. I was maybe two yards away from them now. The first PSCO turned, looked at me like I was a piece of shit and said “have you got a problem, buddy?” I told him I was on the phone… “Nothing wrong then?” he said. I told my wife “I’ll call you back”.
I explained that it was sad to see the police waking someone who is obviously in need and making them move. I asked why it was necessary; the guy wasn’t harming anyone! “He was begging!” one of the PCSOs said. “He was sleeping.” I replied. “He’s in breach of the Vagrancy Act,” I was told. I don’t know the law on this well enough to have engaged sufficiently. So I just spoke my mind. “If he’s committing a crime, why don’t you have him arrested?” I said, “at least he’d have a warm night!” I was told that the police “don’t arrest rough sleepers, we just move them on”… I was told the PCSOs had just come from a community-run soup-kitchen where those who want to eat, can. I was told this guy could’ve gone there! I explained that this wasn’t the issue I had.
“If you give him money, you never know! He may end up dead. It’s the worst thing we see among rough sleepers,” I was told. I replied that I hadn’t given him any money, at least not that night. In the past, I said, I had done. I’d bought him coffee, I’d given him a burger. He’s always there, he’s never a nuisance and I can’t see how a sleeping man can be bothering anyone at all. “…Sometimes there’s gangs of them! They sell drugs, they use drugs, they leave needles around…” the first PCSO said, “it frightens people!” I was bored of telling him that that wasn’t the issue in this particular instance.
“So what do you think he’ll do now?” I asked.
“Probably just around the corner, to beg again” he replied.
“So why don’t you follow him and stop him, if it’s such a crime?”
“Because we don’t want to be accused of harassment. My job is to move rough sleepers on. If we hadn’t moved him on and the manager of [a nearby restaurant] or wherever phone my boss and tell him he’s seen us ignoring the problem then I will lose my job… We’ve had complaints from a nearby business. He can’t sleep here.”
I explained, calmly, that the police have been caught doing FAR worse than turning a blind eye to a sleeping homeless man and kept their jobs. So his argument that he was “just following orders” was bullshit. I didn’t use that word. I really fucking wanted to.
“What’s likely to happen now,” I said “is that he’ll go somewhere darker, more remote, less crowded, less safe; Somewhere where the police don’t patrol – where you’ll leave him alone, where he can sleep without being disturbed. Somewhere without streetlights and traffic and CCTV; Somewhere he can bed down without being made to feel a criminal for being homeless. Somewhere where should something happen to him – if he’s attacked or gets sick – he’s less likely to be found straight away.”
The second PCSO, the one who barely spoke, spoke: “Well, he knows where to go…” I was lost for words. I wasn’t entirely sure what he even meant. I assume he meant “go to the soup kitchen” or “go to a hostel” or something. Easy as that, is it? The first said, sarcastically, “Do you have a spare room you could offer him?” They were getting bored of me, I could tell.
“Look,” I said, “I’m going to the pub to meet friends, then I’m going home to my wife. You’ve both got a job to do – I won’t keep you any longer – then you’re going home too, have some supper, go to bed. That poor guy is going to spend the rest of the night hiding from the police, thanks to you making him feel like he’s a criminal. Thanks for your time, guys.” and I walked a little way down the street. I turned to see the PCSOs approaching another homeless man. It seems out of sight is out of mind for most.
I thought about that homeless guy all night; wondered where he ended up. I’ll bring him a coffee and a sandwich later, if I see him – it’s the least I can do. But to those Police Community Support Officers he was just another vagrant making the place look untidy.