By Dave Reid
In the last couple of years there has been a marked increase in the number of homeless people living and begging on the streets of Cardiff. Official figures indicate an increase of 7% sleeping rough in one year, but surrounding cities and towns report increases of 60-90% which appear more accurate. The sharp increase is in large part caused by government welfare changes. The shocking death of a homeless 32 year old woman who was sleeping in Alexandra Park should have spurred Cardiff Council and the Welsh government to emergency action to provide accommodation so that no one was forced to sleep rough in the capital city.
Instead the authorities are cracking down on homeless people themselves in a clampdown called Operation Purple Ash. Cardiff council and the South Wales Police has started arresting homeless people. 150 people have been issued with orders banning them from the city centre. The large number of people sleeping rough on the streets has caused a great deal of concern to the authorities. Not because of concern over their welfare so much as the appearance of the centre itself. Clearly the sight of dozens of people begging in the city centre is bad for business in the Christmas shopping season for the high street chains. There was a similar campaign to drive homeless people out of the city centre prior to the Champions League Final in June.
And this has been accompanied by a media campaign against homeless people to justify the crackdown. The South Wales Echo has carried pieces about the mental health, drug and alcohol problems of many homeless people accompanied by the usual comment “the causes of homelessness are complex”. The implications are obvious: homeless people are responsible for their plight and the eyesore should be removed from the city centre, rather than the failure of national and local government to provide adequate housing. When homeless people are invisible there is very little concern about the problem of homelessness in the media.
On December 1st the paper carried an irresponsible report from the South Wales Police alleging that most of the people begging are not in fact homeless. The fact that unemployed people who are not homeless are forced to beg has long been understood. But for the Echo and the police to make a big issue of this will open up genuinely homeless people for attack. Already there have been numerous reports of homeless people being set upon by drunks in the city centre.
That the report was intended to demonise homeless people can be seen by the fact that it included a police statement that one of the people begging had been arrested for possessing cannabis. The possession of cannabis is hardly a remarkable event – if every young person in Cardiff who possessed cannabis was arrested Cardiff prison would be packed. Probably the arresting officers, the council officials and the Echo reporter have all consumed cannabis. But the arrest was reported to contribute to the impression that the homeless are responsible for their problems.
Ironically many of the high street chains who the council and police are assisting by removing homeless people are well known tax avoiders who are refusing to contribute to solving the problem of homelessness. For example Boots were exposed in 2013 by War on Want because between 2007-13 it avoided paying £1 billion by registering for tax in other countries even though 40% of the company’s revenue come from the NHS.
15,000 people a year lose their homes in Wales and another 10,000 come within days of losing their home. Hundreds of thousands more live a very precarious life unsure of where they will be living next year. Many rely on relatives and friends when they are made homeless and do not appear in any statistics. But an increasing number do not have parents to fall back on and find themselves sleeping rough. People with mental health or drug problems form a high percentage of those forced to live rough. However it is not mental health or drug issues that has increased homelessness, but lack of affordable housing coupled with cuts in housing benefits. Shelter Cymru pointed out “With rent levels rocketing and home ownership an increasingly impossible dream, it’s no wonder that so many families are struggling.”
Socialist Party Wales has demanded that immediate steps are taken to solve the housing crisis.
- As an immediate measure all homeless people in the city should be guaranteed a roof over their head where they can sleep safely
- For the Welsh government to legislate to allow councils to introduce rent control to cap the sky high level of rents
- For the banning of accommodation agency fees
- For a crash building programme of council houses to provide genuinely affordable housing for families
- Social services to be provided to assist homeless people into permanent housing and into employment