Criminals or Victims?
Nerve asks: Is the recent clampdown on homeless people really related to crime prevention?
In May 2002, the local authorities attempted to ban Bernard James McCartney - a homeless man - from Liverpool City Centre, for alleged aggressive begging. The inference was that begging was an affront to ordinary people going about their business. His defence was that, he had no regular income of any kind, so was left with no alternative but to beg. This arrest came alongside the persistent arrest and fingerprinting of hundreds of homeless people and the banning of Big Issue sellers from Clayton Square. During this same period there was a number of city centre billboards trying to discourage people giving money to people begging offering dubious advice such as "Fact: Nobody needs to beg for a bed" and "Help them make the change, keep your change".
Critics of this 'campaign' suggested that the local council, business leaders, Merseyside Police and private security firms were working together under the banner of 'Crime Alert' and 'City Safe partnership' and were operating, the beginnings of a long term strategy to exclude poor people from the city centre. Furthermore, they argued, they were making attempts at "silencing the experiences of homeless people and irresponsibilizing their presence in the city"(1). This was not only the start of a 'clear up campaign' to rid the city centre of homeless people but rid rid the centre of everyone whom the authorities defined as 'undesirable' including protesters and flower sellers. This, the authorities believed, would make the city more attractive to tourists and people with money to spend.
The recent police crackdown on homeless people and Big Issue sellers allegedly dealing in drugs is seen by many as the first open phase of this clearance policy. On October 16th 2003, after fifteen months of undercover investigation and infiltration by Merseyside Police, 200 police officers swamped the city centre of Liverpool, arresting 54 people for alleged drug dealing, and a number of weapons were said to have been recovered. Thirty of those arrested were Big Issue sellers. Superintendent Alan Cooper claimed that what had began as an investigation into aggressive begging turned into a drugs inquiry, and as part of the ongoing 'Operation Change' they found 29 wraps of class A drugs and 40 wraps of crack cocaine. Superintendent Cooper claimed that it had soon became clear that many of the people who were being complained about were also dealing in drugs on the city's streets. Paul Rice, City Centre manager for Liverpool City Council shockingly proclaimed the arrests were a, "major step forward in creating a cleaner, safer and more attractive city centre". He pointed to surveys which had "highlighted the activities of aggressive beggars as the major detraction from the city centre", and praised "the strength of partnership between the City Council, Merseyside Police and city centre businesses". Liverpool City Council then banned Big Issue selling in the city centre immediately after the arrests, but backed down when the Big Issue's parent company threatened legal action. Eventually out of the 54 people arrested only 12 were charged with offences, 3 have recently been given prison sentences, under what critics have described as a form of entrapment.
Nerve magazine in no way condones drug dealing and is very vocal about the damage it has caused the city and the lives of many residents. But you don't have to be a brain surgeon to know that drug dealing is not carried out by people standing out in all weathers trying to earn a few pounds to get by. In March 2003 there was a two-week period when beggars were targeted and "offered help" to get off the streets, or face arrest. Speaking at the time, Councillor Flo Clucas said: "We know that begging causes serious problems for people who live, work and visit our city". Our research did not back this up, however. Many people we spoke to admitted that passing a Big Issue seller or being approached by someone asking for money can be embarrassing, and we did find a couple of people who said they had been frightened by beggars, but they told us it did not take much to shake them off. Homelessness does bother people - it's only natural to feel shame when walking past someone less fortunate asking for help. But it could be argued that the claims made by people like Ms Clucas and Mr Rice are nothing more than vain attempts to justify an exclusion policy the main remiot of which is to hide away or cover up people at the bottom rung of the poverty ladder. All evidence shows that homeless people are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and that they are far more likely to be insulted by members of the public than beg aggressively. 'Operation Manton' has not only created further difficulties for people attempting to get themselves back into society, it has also further ingrained the prejudice many people have about the homeless and Big Issue sellers.
- manager of Liverpool's Basement Night Drop-in Centre - is amongst the
critics of the council's tactics. She said she had been made aware of
undercover police officers infiltrating the centre and was deeply concerned
that they were using-up resources that people genuinely in need could
have used. Nigel, a Big Issue vendor in the city centre, was effectively
told to stop selling the magazine by police. "They said I'll have
to go over to a different area and I couldn't sell there at all".
Members of the public had "all seen the TV and newspapers about the
arrests, and nobody seemed to be interested in buying the magazine".
Fay Selvan, chairwoman of the Issue's parent company said, "It seems…an
easy way to get publicity by arresting Big Issue sellers. As far as we
are aware, none of the sellers have been charged with drugs or any other
offences. But they are an easy target". She also claimed that after
the arrests legitimate vendors were "threatened with arrest if they
refused to leave their pitch. This is an abuse of civil rights and tantamount
to harassment of our vendors". The Big issue in the North is in contact
with civil rights group Liberty over this matter and is making an official
complaint to police complaints bodies". She added, "We have
tried to talk to both Liverpool City Council and the police to discuss
ways in which we can manage our vendors. They are very vulnerable people
and they are being victimised." Finally, one Big Issue seller we
spoke to described his dread at the damaging headlines prompted by the
arrests: "When I saw the news this morning I thought it was hardly
worth coming out and everyone was talking about it. It is more bad publicity
for us. The police know that around 60% of Big Issue sellers are drug
addicts. But there is no way anyone selling it would deal drugs to people.
What is really annoying is that the police said the thirty people they
had picked up were Big Issue sellers. But they didn't say what the other
twenty people did for a living, did they?"
Who are the Vendors?