Leeds residents will have noticed a shanty town of tents has appeared in Park Square. But why is it there? Leeds Hacks investigates.
Protesters have been camping out in Leeds city centre to raise awareness about homelessness.
Dubbed “Tent City”, the protest began outside Leeds City Art Gallery just over two weeks ago and is comprised of around 60 tents, primarily by Leeds’ homeless community. On Monday of this week the council issued a court order for the camp to be removed.
They are now located on the gardens at Park Square, a short walk away from their previous home. Protesters claim that government homelessness statistics are inaccurate – hiding the true number of people without permanent homes.
Homelessness in the UK has been a problem for a significant number of years. The current number of rough sleepers is estimated to be around 3,569 people – a 30% rise over last year’s figures and double the number in 2010.
The statistics are described by homeless charity Crisis as a ‘snapshot of the real figure’. Inconsistent statistics and flaws in surveys – including what counts as “homelessness” are blamed for poor figures.
In 2010 the Government’s Department for Communities and Local Government changed the definition of rough sleeping. When estimating or counting homelessness figures those included must fall into the following definition:
People sleeping, about to bed down (sitting on/in or standing next to their bedding) or actually bedded down in the open air (such as on the streets, in tents, doorways, parks, bus shelters or encampments). People in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (such as stairwells, barns, sheds, car parks, cars, derelict boats, stations, or “bashes”).
Stephen Cale from the Housing Solutions Department at Kirklees Council says “The definition does not include people in hostels or shelters, people in campsites or other sites used for recreational purposes or organised protest, squatters or travellers.”
The next survey of figures will begin on the 1st October to the end of November and will count the number of “rough sleepers” across UK cities. However, those who are not sleeping, carrying sleeping gear or in temporary housing will not be counted by councils as “homeless”.
According to homeless charity Crisis this means “There is no national figure for how many people are homeless across the UK, because many homeless people do not show up in official statistics at all”.
Crisis Chief Executive Jon Sparkes said “The grim reality is that more and more people are finding themselves in desperate circumstances, struggling to keep a roof over their heads and fearing for their future”.
“We are also concerned by the fall in the number of people prevented from becoming homeless in the first place. These trends should be going in the opposite direction. Prevention is always better than cure, and for homeless people this is especially so”.
The Tent City protest
The Leeds Homeless Partnership has organised the Tent City a protest to highlight problems with homeless statistics and with perceived heavy handed policing of homelessness in Leeds.
Although the Leeds City council say “helping the homeless remains an absolute priority” the charity don’t feel that the council is prioritising the issue and want to make themselves heard.
Organisers say the idea of “Tent City” is to create a safe space for homeless people around the city, after a number of reports of harassment had been received.
As individuals many of the people involved say that they feel vulnerable and are scared of being moved or harassed by members of the public and police. The protest has allowed homeless people and the charity to protest to the council as a group.
Leeds Homeless Partnership began its first street kitchen 10 months ago only to realise the true number of homelessness coming from outside the town centre was bigger than they could have ever imagined.
The group explained that the figures represented in the press were entirely wrong and gave the wrong impression as to the scale of the problem to the public.
Hayden Jessop, from Leeds Homeless Partnership said: “People were being pushed out of the center to where there is no CCTV”
“We took action by setting up camp at Leeds Art Gallery first, as it is one of the main routes into town and people going to work or university would see the true number of homeless people”
“We started off with 15 tents, then went to 26 tents the night after and eventually grew and grew and now we have over 60 people here joining us.”
“We have people doubling up in tents, and people that are helping these guys stay over at night too.”
The aim of the protest is to make the council increase health and benefits especially for under 35’s.
Hayden further explained “The issues surrounding the councils offering of shared housing is that it doesn’t work for people who suffer with addiction problems. How is a drug addict ever going to get clean if they are sharing an apartment with another user?”
“On top of that the council will offer addiction therapy or mental health therapy, but never both. And those two things go directly hand in hand meaning that the cycle is never broken and people always end up back on the streets.”
The group are currently waiting on the Council to offer a long term solution to the problem. Representatives from the Council have been down to the site but according to Hyden have not made any real headway “Some people have come down but it’s up to the guys here to choose to take the help. They have been let down so many times before they don’t have any faith in the council.”
So far the protesters have no idea of the protests longevity but due to the upcoming Leeds Light Night it will soon be moved on as the current site on Park Square is used as part of the festivities.
The group are hoping to continue raising awareness of the problem and eventually have a formal solution set out by the Leeds City Council by the end of the year.
The Residents View
“They wanted us out the way for the Olympics, but it has affected us for the better if anything. It has given us publicity and it has taken off,” said Garry Mackintosh, an activist and resident of the camp, “We shouldn’t have to be here but we are here . Maybe in the future these guys will be housed and getting the support they need,”
What Mackintosh believes is that some homeless charities can be ineffective due to red tape. They think that it is time to make their voices heard and force the hand of the council to house them as quickly as possible by coming together peacefully and raising awareness for their cause.
“The end goal is to have nobody homeless, get these guys on the right track. The donations we get here go to the people who need them, we like to think we are showing people the right way of doing things. Thank you to everybody that’s supported us,” says Mackintosh, “We aren’t moving, they can come and get us if they want but we are staying put until they do”.
It’s far from a party in the park. One protester Sarah Elliott explained “It’s alright when its sun shining but when you’re sat in a tent when it’s when its bucketing down with rain it’s not any fun at all”.
Tim, a homeless resident of Tent City who didn’t wish to give his full name says that the yellow and red card system enforced by police officers in the city was one of the reasons the group decided to set up camp. He says the card system which excludes homeless people and beggars from the city centre for between 24 and 48 hours has been championed by local businesses as they do not want homeless people outside their shops.
The Police View
“The red and yellow card thing doesn’t exist anymore because we got to a point where we had given them red and yellow cards so many times been ignored that we are looking at other mechanisms,” said Tony Tierney, a press officer for West Yorkshire Police.
“What we tend to see are people who are beggars and they aren’t homeless so they come from accommodation, are in receipt of benefits and sit in the center and beg as a source of income for class A drug addiction and alcohol abuse.
“What we do know is that people putting their hands in their pockets and giving them money just keeps them trapped in that unhelpful cycle of generating income that is mostly spent on drugs and alcohol.”
The police view is that there are enough spaces in beds and outreach groups in Leeds to end the homeless problem altogether. This is not a view that the residents of Tent City share as they dispute the official numbers of people sleeping rough.
The Council View
As with any complex issue it’s important to hear all sides of the argument in order to fully understand the problem, here’s what Councillor Debra Coupar, Leeds City Council’s executive member for communities said:
“The protesters have chosen not to engage with the council or charities who work on this issue. We do our utmost to help every single person in housing need in the city and offers of accommodation are made to everyone who the council and partner charities find sleeping rough.
“We have offered to assess the housing needs of those taking part in the protest, just like we would to any person who contacts us needing assistance. We have made offers of accommodation to those who need it and hope that everyone will work with us to provide suitable support and assistance to anyone in housing need.”
However hard the council is working to make change, it’s clear that the homeless community has decided for itself that the time has come to take to the streets in protest.
What’s being done?
Last month a government select committee agreed to scrutinise and endorse the ‘Homelessness Reduction Bill’ put forward by Conservative MP Bob Blackman.
It claims that in order to end homelessness there must be a change in the law, backed by improvements to the availability of stable and affordable homes, so that all homeless people can get the support they need.
As part of the new legislation it will make sure that councils have a duty to prevent and relieve homelessness regardless of priority need, extend the time that households are considered at risk of homelessness from 28 to 56 days, and require emergency accommodation for people with nowhere safe to stay.
The bill will face its critical second reading in October and according to Crisis will be hugely significant if passed.
A number of homeless charities are calling for the Government to show its commitment to the problem by supporting the bill and call on all MPs to back it as well as asking for all important public support.
By Alicia Lansom, Claudia Ballester and Joe Burn