Enforcement, coercion and interventionism: evolving responses to homelessness and street culture

October 6, 2014     Leave a Comment

Part of our series highlighting the recently published briefing bapers, this blog by Sarah Johnsen examines the current state of conditionality and homelessness.

Earlier this year, the installation of ‘spikes’ to deter rough sleepers from bedding down in the doorway of a luxury London apartment block prompted a social media storm and widespread public outrage. Attempts to make towns and cities less conducive to rough sleeping do in fact have a long history in the UK and overseas.  They first hit the headlines in the USA, when a number of metropolitan authorities installed ‘anti-homeless sprinklers’ and seats that were impossible to lie on within public spaces. Here in the UK, the practice of gating off alleyways or removing seating is relatively commonplace in areas deemed to have a rough sleeping or street drinking ‘problem’.

The manipulation of the built environment to ‘design out’ street activity, however, is only one aspect of the increasing use of enforcement and coercion in responses to homelessness and ‘street culture’ in England. Other common measures include the use of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), arrests under the Vagrancy Act 1824, controlled drinking zones, dispersal orders and diverted giving schemes.   In addition to these, there has been a trend towards increasingly ‘interventionist’ approaches within support services working with rough sleepers and those involved in begging or street drinking.  These new, more assertive and persuasive models emphasise the expectation that homeless people should ‘engage’ with services and/or change aspects of their behaviour or lifestyle – and in particular that they should ‘come inside’ by accepting offers of accommodation.

These trends in policy and practice have been particularly prominent in England, less so in Scotland. This uneven adoption reflects, in part, the controversy that surrounds these kinds of approaches and a heated debate about whether they are justified ethically. According to advocates, the use of enforcement and interventionism in response to homelessness and street culture is a necessary means of deterring vulnerable individuals from engaging in behaviour that is severely detrimental to their own health and wellbeing and, furthermore, has a negative effect on the wider community. Opponents, on the other hand, argue that these approaches are cold-hearted, callous and misguided given the obvious vulnerability and discomfort experienced by members of the street population.

To some degree at least, arbitrating between these two opposing perspectives requires a strong evidence base regarding how effective coercive and interventionist approaches are in practice.  Do they for example encourage the individuals involved in such activities to ‘come inside’ and engage with support services and in so doing help minimise the negative effects of rough sleeping on those who experience it? Or, do they drive rough sleepers into more dangerous activities and/or places, and potentially make it more difficult for support workers to find and engage with them in a constructive way?

Existing research suggests that in practice such responses are almost always underpinned by a complex mix of self-serving and altruistic motives. It also suggests that while such approaches do in some cases drive those engaged in street activities away from support, in others – and specifically, when accompanied by intensive support – enforcement-based interventions can act as a ‘crisis point’ prompting those affected to engage with the supportive interventions on offer. The difficulty is that current evidence does not reveal why such approaches ‘work’ for some individuals, but not others.

The effectiveness and ethicality of initiatives such as designing out, and other strategies used to combat rough sleeping and street culture are currently being examined as part of this study.  This recently published briefing paper provides an overview of recent trends in policy and practice and current debates in favour  of and against enforcement, coercion and interventionism targeting people who sleep rough and/or are engaged in other ‘street activities’.

Sarah Johnsen, October 2014

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