Think North

Austerity, women & health inequalities


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‘Truth about aggressive city centre begging revealed’: an open letter to Newcastle council with Stephen Crossley

We were interested to read your recent Cabinet update story ‘revealing’ the ‘truth about aggressive city centre begging’ (Cabinet update November 2015). The story included quotes that suggested begging on the streets or being homeless was a potentially lucrative ‘lifestyle choice’ that people had rationally and deliberately chosen. For example, Cllr. Nick Kemp stated that:

‘We don’t have a homelessness problem in Newcastle. The council and voluntary sector have hundreds of beds which means there’s really no need to be on the street’.

Superintendent Bruce Storey went on to say:

People assume that the person who is begging is using the money for hot food, a drink and a roof over their heads – this just isn’t the case. People who we’ve identified as problem beggars in the city, and it tends to be the same few, have home addresses and are coming into the city to make easy cash. Those that genuinely do need help and support are being given it by the city council and other agencies and we want those people to know that there is no need to beg and that the help is there for them

We would like to take this opportunity to share a story which will hopefully counteract this perspective, and help to illuminate the wider context.

Amy had an encounter with a pregnant woman sitting on Northumberland Street a few weeks ago. Her name is Sarah, and, at 24 weeks pregnant we are sure that sitting on a cold street in winter isn’t a choice she is willingly making. But the paths our lives take us on are often difficult, we don’t always do things that are in our best interests, and it’s sometimes hard to justify the choices we make.

Sarah told Amy that the only housing option the council could provide her with was temporary hostel accommodation, which was, in her words, full of drug users. There could be any number of reasons why she doesn’t want to stay in that environment, and we doubt those on the council would choose that living arrangement either, we know we wouldn’t. We could choose to believe she is lying of course, but that isn’t helpful or practical.

Unfortunately, there was no room for nuance or perspective in your story, or the coverage it received on the front pages of the Evening Chronicle (http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/more-96-per-cent-beggars-10482765). The stigmatising depiction of vulnerable and disadvantaged people as being criminal, manipulative and deviant is extremely disappointing.

Newcastle City Council has been very quick to highlight the detrimental impact of government cuts on the services it provides. It is unfortunate that the same council does not recognise that austerity measures can affect individuals, many of whom will rely on those services that have been cut. It is one thing to see Conservative politicians portraying poor people as ‘scroungers’ and ‘fraudsters’ to justify cuts and ‘reforms’ to the welfare state. It is quite another thing to hear Labour politicians echoing and even extending this rhetoric to an even more marginalised group.

The argument that beds are readily available and support available for those that need it belies the difficult reality of accessing appropriate services. A single conversation with a young pregnant mother showed a very different perspective, from someone who wanted to access services, but couldn’t. Or perhaps her story, and indeed her ‘pregnancy’ were just part of an elaborate organised crime scam?

If the city council really wanted to ‘inform’ residents ‘about what is really going on’, as Cllr. Kemp suggested, they could instead have highlighted the complex and often difficult choices people must make, often against their own better judgement. In our own experiences, we have never been led to believe that people we see begging, living rough or in temporary accommodation were there as a result of their ‘lifestyle choices’.

We believe that individual lives and choices are embedded within a broader cultural and structural framework. The council would be better served to highlight the impact of austerity cuts on individuals as well as on local council budgets, social housing, disability and job seeker payments, and community support services, than emphasise ‘individualised’ lifestyle ‘choices’ which only further stigmatise people living in difficult circumstances. We believe your ‘No Need to Beg’ campaign is misguided, misinformed, and a huge shame.

***The above is an open letter to Newcastle City Council from myself and a colleague, Stephen Crossley. We were both surprised by the stance adopted by the city council in a recent update to residents. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be a localised response  as other councils are also adopting similar approaches, with Leeds proposing a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ campaign, Manchester having banned homeless people from using the toilets in their library and Newport proposing banning rough sleepers altogether.***

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It’s important to share

I’ve realised something lately. People are essentially good, and people essentially want to help. I sent out a simple email requesting santitary items for women without, and received enough to fill two car boots. People are really very, very kind, if you just give us a chance.

During the course of my fieldwork in Stockton-on-Tees, I became aware of a need within the community through one of the organisations providing crucial support in Stockton:

‘Catalyst, SSNP and SRCGA accepting donations for Asylum Seekers in Stockton. This morning we had a meeting in which we discovered that Asylum Seekers in Stockton and Middlesbrough are in desperate need of sanitary products. Toothpaste, toothbrushes, toilet paper, nappies and, perhaps most disturbing of all, women are using newspaper for sanitary towels as they cannot afford to buy them on their own.

In light of this, we are seeking donations to better the lives of Asylum Seekers and their families over the coming winter months.’

Not wanting to be simply a ‘detached researcher’, I sent out an email to the postgraduate mailing list of the geography department at Durham. Within the hour I started receiving emails with promises of goods, and before long my desk and the space around my desk was covered with bags. The messages were circulated to other departments, staff and students, and I was beyond impressed with the sheer quantity of female hygiene products, baby products and cosmetics that were donated.

Myself and Kate (also working on the Health Inequalities project) drove out to Stockton last week to drop off the donation along with some gratefully received cash donations. Already, I have several more promises of donations, as well as the area around my desk filled up with bags. The generosity of so many people has really impressed upon me the desire people have to help, and the importance of creating opportunities like this.

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Just look at all these bags, carefully purchased and given by so many caring people!


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‘There’s no such thing as class in Ireland’

http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/courts/amid-the-usual-teen-court-dramas-a-case-that-will-shock-the-nation-34260969.html

The author of this article doesn’t do much in the way of condemning the rape of a then-15 year old by five young men. Instead, she describes the court setting; the young men were well dressed, they were certainly not from bad homes. Will the young men be tried in the District or Circuit Court? Whichever will provide the shortest sentence, probably. Either way, they will be remanded on bail until next year. The fifth accused was excused from yesterday’s hearing. So far, so descriptive. We’ve seen it all before.

The main problem isn’t the troublingly descriptive nature with which the serial rape of an under-age woman is drawn into the piece. Although this is, of course, a problem. The real issue is the judgemental and classist tone when describing the ‘kinds of people’ who usually frequent courts. In Ireland, we have this hypocritical attitude to so many things. When it comes to class, we are utterly exceptionalist. We act as if class doesn’t exist, because we don’t have the same overt class gradient as exists in other countries, we are a more homogeneous population generally, and in many ways our identities are drawn along different boundaries than ‘class’. But that doesn’t mean class doesn’t exist, and ignoring it does us all a disservice.

Why does this journalist dedicate so much space to juxtaposing the crimes of 5 men from an ‘upmarket South Dublin suburb’, to the type of young people that we are supposed to be believe belong within the criminal justice system? Why the need to mention the tracksuits, the absent parents, time spent in care? If this were an article about the UK there would be any number of tropes with which to depict these young men, chavs being the most prominent. But we lack the vocabulary with which to critically engage with what class means in Irish society.

To cite another example, I read an article a few months ago that made me feel uncomfortable on many levels [http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/a-spice-bag-and-a-sneaky-naggin-say-hello-to-the-dublin-hun-1.2376230]. It justified piss-taking as our ‘national pass time’, failing to acknowledge that the piss-taking in this example is at the expense of some Dublin women’s working class culture. The project the article is based on is defensible, apparently, because the illustrator in question comes originally from Coolock.

In Ireland, in academia, the media, in political and social life, we claim that class doesn’t exist. We’re all equal. Ireland, Land of the Flat Hierarchy. Where the Taoiseach went to your old school and you vote for your neighbour in the elections because he’s gas craic. We’re only taking the piss, and nothing you say when you’re taking the piss is meant literally. As a nation, we would prefer to put our fingers in our ears and go ‘na na na, doesn’t count’. But I’m sorry, it does count, and it’s making hypocrites of us all.

*Do you have any thoughts on the above? Please post a comment or Tweet @amygmurphy!*