Groundswell response: Home Secretary’s proposal to criminalise the use of tents

Groundswell response: Home Secretary’s proposal to criminalise the use of tents
06/11/2023 Becky Evans

This is not a life, sleeping in the freezing cold, it is an existence. And there is no choice – it is precisely a lack of choice which is probably why someone sleeps under a bridge in a tent” 

Denise, volunteer Listen Up! reporter

6th November 2023

We at Groundswell, like many of our friends and peers in and beyond the homelessness sector, condemn the proposals and comments in the last few days from the Home Secretary regarding the banning of tents, the criminalisation of groups handing out tents as support, and the statement that sleeping rough may be a ‘lifestyle choice’. 

Every day Groundswell sees the physical and mental health impact rough sleeping can have on people. We know this personally, as over 60% of our staff and all our volunteers have experienced some form of homelessness. And we know how the experience can substantially shorten lives – we sadly see this with some of the clients that we work with. This not only impacts on the people experiencing it, but on the services trying to support people whose physical and mental health is worsening, services already under strain. 

Any and every measure that can be taken to help people at risk of or experiencing sleeping rough, should be taken. Nobody wants people to have to sleep in tents. But in the absence of safe affordable housing, supported accommodation or other alternatives, the provision of and sleeping in tents is the last measure. 

Our team have been shocked by the Home Secretary’s proposals, and by the framing of the issue. It is not an individual choice, but a result of policy failures and systemic issues over the years, that has led to this situation. 

As ListenUp! reporter Tony summarises, 

Rather than providing solutions to failed policies and addressing the lack of affordable social housing, the Home Secretary wrongly tries to criminalise people and those trying to help them to find suitable temporary accommodation.”

We know it is getting worse. We recently saw the highest ever monthly increase in rough sleeping numbers. With the cost of living crisis, the ongoing housing crisis, the imminent winter and lack of emergency provision, sky-high rental markets, services already under strain, the ejection of refugees from hotels with extremely short notice. All of this is compounding what is already an extremely critical situation. 

We strongly urge the Home Secretary to consider the extremely damaging language used. Rough sleeping or sleeping in tents is not a ‘lifestyle choice’. 

As one of our team Jan highlights,

“You get a lot of this ‘lifestyle choice’ thing. People thinking rough sleeping  is ‘a lifestyle choice thing, it’s an excuse to do nothing, it’s all their own fault - they choose to live like that.’ I’ve had someone come up to me in the park saying ‘Ah you’re so lucky…you’re your own boss, you can do what you like. Nobody pushes you around’. And I think, ‘you’ve got no idea how much I get pushed around!’ Where do I go when it rains? Where do I go when I want to go to the toilet? Where do I go to get a shower?’”

To use such language further stigmatises individuals, and is detrimental to how society perceives the issue, how people feel about themselves, and therefore their progression away from homelessness. 

There are real solutions and policies that will genuinely address these issues, such as increasing Local Housing Allowance, improvements in temporary accommodation and more social housing. It is vital that people with lived experience are at the heart of those solutions. 

Solutions need to be identified with people who have experience of the issues, and with groups and charities that understand the issue. This is a key part of the work Groundswell does, and we would strongly recommend the government proactively engage and listen to people with lived experience of homelessness to address these issues in ways that will really work, as well as better consult with our sector to inform policies like these. As Mahesh, one of our ListenUp! reporters, summarises: 

“There are a myriad organisations (just look at Groundswell) working tirelessly, passionately, to alleviate the suffering people face. The government should work closely with them, listen to them – listen to us. Resorting to sound bites is not the way to deal with these awful, painful issues”.

Groundswell will continue to work closely with our people and our partners to address the causes and impact of homelessness, to work towards finding solutions with our people to the issues they experience. 

Banning tents is not a solution. Banning tents will cost lives. 

We urgently urge the Home Secretary to reconsider. 

Groundswell was one of 15 charities to jointly sign this letter to the Home Secretary on 5th November.

With thanks for comments to our staff and volunteers with lived experience of homelessness. 

Read Listen Up! reporter Denise’s report ‘ Poor life choices’.