Opinion

Suella Braverman's 'lifestyle choice' claim on homelessness is cavalier, wrong and straight-up ignorant

If people have elected to live in the ‘splendours’ of the streets then we would be fighting a losing cause, says founder John Bird

Lord John Bird on Suella Braverman's comments regarding street homelessness as a lifestyle choice

Suella Braverman proposed plans to crackdown on tents being given to rough sleepers could see charities hit with fines for supporting people on the streets. Image: Brett Sayles / Pexels

Home secretary Suella Braverman should in many senses have known better than declare that street homelessness is a lifestyle choice.

To say such a thing suggests that she has the ear of some great data gatherer who has done more than any of us working in homelessness in quizzing homeless people as to why they are on the streets.

I cannot think of any survey I have read or participated in over 30 years that throws up such a pernicious piece of thinking as Suella Braverman’s cavalier comments that street homeless people elect to be there; dying younger, with mental and physical health problems, and with such a limiting life experience that you would not wish it on your worst enemy.

Braverman should also have reserved her judgement concerning people living on the streets because she fails to recognise that a social crisis, if not acted upon, will often turn into a law and order problem. One would have expected of a cabinet minister more awareness of the social causes of street homelessness. And that making such cheap remarks will not help address the root causes and, therefore, the issues that bring people into sleeping in public places.

Getting tough with street dwellers may appeal to a section of the voting public; that would seem to be the only reason for Braverman’s choice of words. How would she police this crackdown? She will not find a police force willing to tackle this social cleansing action. Speak to any police force and they will mainly say that the problems of street homelessness start well before they start street dwelling.

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Why not put her ministerial weight into insisting the government stops cutting local authority support that causes to limit the provision of accommodation. To put her weight behind convincing the government to ban Section 21 ‘no-fault evictions’ that has added to the amount of displaced people the length and breadth of the land. Evicted through no fault of their own, breaking up families and triggering a host of mental health problems. And eventually for some of them to join those that seek solace in doorways and public places.

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Voice her support for our children coming out of community care so that they don’t end up street homelessness. To address the complete under supply of drug and drink detox programmes provided by the NHS. And the virtual lack in most of our cities of any help around mental health. All drivers that explains street living.

If Suella Braverman actually complained to her fellow cabinet members that because of a lack of government provision and support the streets social problems have been passed on to her. She should remind them also that obviously the Home Office is not stuffed full of social interveners who know how to prevent people falling into street homelessness; or how to cure the problem.

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If Suella Braverman was actually right about this lifestyle choice then the Big Issue, Centrepoint, St Mungo’s, Shelter and Crisis etc should just pack up those bags and retire from the scene. For if people have elected to live in the ‘splendours’ of the streets then we would be fighting a losing cause.

What Braverman’s words make me realise is that my private members bill to create a Ministry of Poverty Prevention is more timely than ever. That the complete lack of order, structure and convergence of energies allows the home secretary to make this knee jerk observations that express frustration and a lack of thoughtfulness. A Ministry of Poverty Prevention would hopefully make it unnecessary for future home secretaries to speak with such ignorance about such a poignant and troubling issue as street homelessness.

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here. This article first appeared in The Times.

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