Forcibly removing rough sleepers from the streets is one way to maintain an illusion of affluence, but not one that politicians with a conscience should countenance. That such a device looks cruel is obvious even to one who advocates it: Simon Dudley, the Conservative leader of Windsor and Maidenhead borough council, describes homelessness as “completely unacceptable in a caring, compassionate community” in a letter to Thames Valley police, while urging action to remove the evidence from public view.
Mr Dudley focuses his displeasure on a sub-category of the homeless whom he accuses of “aggressive begging and intimidation” and whose plight he sees as “a voluntary choice”. This distinction between deserving and undeserving poor is as old as it is bogus. It is probably true that some of Windsor’s homeless offend the council leader’s sense of propriety and make choices other than the ones he would recommend. But genuine compassion reaches beyond such narrow parameters.
It is also true that extreme poverty changes the character of a town that attracts millions of tourists and will be a focus of international attention when Prince Harry marries Meghan Markle in Windsor Castle in May. A local politician’s interest in removing social decay from the scene is obvious. It needn’t even be a despicable ambition if the royal wedding were set as the deadline for genuine action to address destitute people’s needs with resources allocated accordingly.
But that would indicate different priorities, a different moral outlook. It would require seeing homelessness as a source of collective national shame and not a quasi-criminal act best referred to the police. This obtuseness reaches the top of the Tory party. Theresa May has said she disagrees with Mr Dudley’s approach but she shows no willingness to accept that, under her government, homelessness is becoming an emergency. In one prime minister’s questions session last month, Mrs May asserted that “statutory homelessness peaked under the Labour government and is down by 50% since then”. The statistical lens deployed there was so warped as to present a reversal of reality. The peak that Mrs May described was in 2003, reflecting the persistence of a problem that had become entrenched under the Tory government that lost office in 1997. Labour got to grips with the issue and numbers fell until 2010, when Downing Street was recaptured by the Conservatives. Progress then went into reverse.
Government statistics put the number of homeless households in the third quarter of 2017 at 15,290 (up from 14,930 at the equivalent point in 2016). But the “statutory” definition is narrow and misleading, covering those getting help from local authorities. Many who sleep rough or drift in and out of precarious private accommodation fall below statistical radars. And the evidence of an acute problem is visible to anyone with their eyes open to it.
Homelessness, the big failure caused by a series of lesser ones, is often the visible symbol of social policy under stress. The Tories can only obfuscate for so long before majority opinion recoils in horror at a government that treats abject destitution as a tolerable side-effect of its economic policies. Mrs May is on this trajectory. She might reject the terms used by the leader of Windsor council, but she seems to share his instinct for seeing extreme poverty more as a source of political embarrassment than a spur to action. Her dodgy statistics are a subtler device than police intervention, but both testify to the false belief that a social calamity can simply be swept aside.