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Dear Suella, my homelessness was not a ‘lifestyle choice’

I have first-hand experience of the risks Braverman's incendiary comments cause to homeless people. 

November 10 2023, 11.01am
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Suella Braverman continues to make headlines for all the wrong reasons this week. While she has received widespread condemnation for her op-ed in the Times, criticising the police for not arresting peaceful protesters and labelling pro palestine marches as ‘hate mobs’; far less has been said about her sending a series of tweets branding homelessness a ‘lifestyle choice’. Braverman’s proposed new laws to ban charities from handing out tents to rough sleepers are just as worrying and I have first-hand experience of the risks that her incendiary comments cause to homeless people. 

Despite failing to read the room when her cruel proposals weren’t included in the King’s speech on Tuesday, Braverman seems adamant on having tent restrictions included in the new Criminal Justice Bill. Ironically, this bill was set out to replace parts of the 1824 Vagrancy Act. The Act, which criminalises rough sleeping and begging, was something the government pledged to repeal in 2022. Yet, they have failed to provide a date to do so and it’s clear from Braverman’s proposals that the Tories merely plan to rebrand a draconian policy approaching its bicentenary. As Braverman continues to bounce around ideas on how to make criminalising homelessness palatable in the 21st century, her tweets have bounced around my head, reminding me of the ‘lifestyle choices’ that led to my own homelessness. 

Just 16 at the time, I had recently been moved from a stable 14-year foster home and sent on a breakneck tour of some of the worst foster placements in Merseyside. I remember waking up in one placement with a strange man sitting on my bed, his hand patting my leg over the quilt as he inquired how long I would be staying with his friends. Not long. I was dressed and out the door within minutes. When I couldn’t get hold of my social worker, I ended up spending my first night on the street. 

After that, I was lucky most nights, when friends would help me out with offers of a comfy sofa, but there were other times when it was safer to decline their help. I remember one ‘friend’ taking me to a house where he said I could get my head down. The place was crawling. It was clearly a drug den; a soiled mattress lay in the middle of a bare room with no light bulb. The men there reminded me of the man who had appeared in my room, and it was clear that my only choice was to go back onto the street. 

“Removing tents only takes away the thin layer protecting an already vulnerable group.”

While I was fortunate that my homeless nights were few and far between (my original foster carer took me back in at 17 and supported me with finding my first flat when I was 18) every time I ended up on the street, I made a choice to keep myself safe. 20 years on, I believe those ‘lifestyle choices’ were what kept me alive.

As an adult, I have continued to encounter and support rough sleepers through more than 15 years working in Police and Children’s Services, as well as voluntary work. Professionally speaking, Braverman’s suggestions that homelessness is caused by migration and disengagement with support services shows a wilful ignorance to the facts: 25% of the homeless population are care leavers, 17% are those fleeing domestic abuse, and, over the past year, 67% of homeless cases have not been prevented or responded to. The cost-of-living crisis, plunged 400 households a day into homelessness in 2021, and homelessness has risen by 74% since the Tories took power.

I’m currently researching the post-16 educational journeys of care-experienced young people for my PhD and have learnt that, at 16, a third of care leavers are living independently. Many young people in these situations describe feeling unsafe, scared and unprepared. In 2017, an emaciated 17 year old boy was admitted to a psychiatric ward after reporting himself as homeless to social services, and being handed a tent to live in. A recent Sky News investigation found that, between 2019-2020, at least 20 children in care were sent to live in tents or caravans. This investigation uncovered that at least 10,000 care-experienced children had been sent to unsafe and unregulated placements, including barges and adult hostels. 

The fact that tents are being offered as legitimate accommodation by local authorities is a disgrace, but local authorities being so chronically underfunded they cannot provide statutory care to vulnerable children is far worse. Removing tents only takes away the thin layer protecting an already vulnerable group.

At a time when the cost-of-living crisis is causing many young people to remain in the family home until their 20s and 30s, care-experienced young people need extended access to social care support and should not be churned out onto the streets in their teens. We need a legislative response that focuses on housing first policies. Such policies have drastically reduced homelessness in Finland, but must be coupled with a wrap-around, well-funded social care framework that moves away from individualising the causes of homelessness and addresses systemic failings head on.

Chantelle Lunt is a writer, lecturer, PhD research and activist. She has a professional background in policing and public services

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