Op Ed: Arresting homeless people over coronavirus sounds like dystopian horror. We must stop it becoming a reality

Originally in the Independent

How we respond to crises says a lot about our character as a nation, and using these detention powers in place of help will speak volumes

A crisis can often bring out the best in humanity. In my local area, Oxford, more than 1500 people have signed up to the Oxford Hub initiative to build a community response to coronavirus, helping to protect and support our most vulnerable. They’re organising themselves online and setting up phone networks, and it is truly heartwarming and inspiring to see. 

Protecting those who may struggle to look after themselves during the coronavirus crisis must be a priority – not just for the community spirit, but for the government too. That’s why, while I’ve been supportive of the government’s evidence-led approach, I’ve called for a better response to helping vulnerable groups repeatedly over the past few weeks. 

I’ve been raising concerns on behalf of the self-employed, people in the gig economy, and those on zero-hours contracts, who may face a choice between self-isolation and putting food on the table. Supply teachers and shop assistants who could lose the chance to work at all; chemotherapy patients who are unsure whether it is safe to leave the house and travel for their treatment. I’ve written to the government to make sure it is giving these vulnerable groups of people the appropriate guidance and financial support. 

Yesterday, I made an intervention regarding the protection of homeless people, who are undoubtedly among the most vulnerable in our society. Now more than ever, they need our support, empathy and compassion. 

Yet I worry that the new police detention powers will disproportionately and negatively affect the homeless or those with no secure housing. After all, the powers will give police the right to arrest and detain anyone on the street who may have coronavirus. But how can you self-isolate, if you do not have a home or a safe place to sleep? 

The idea of police arresting homeless people, many with complex health and addiction issues, without proper testing, and placing them in detention centres just doesn’t sit right with me at all.

We had made strides in this area. In the past few years, we’ve seen a reduction in the number of arrests of homeless people under the draconian Vagrancy Act. In the next few days, I am due to present the Vagrancy (Repeal) Bill, which would end the criminalisation of homelessness but I now worry these new powers will undermine this progress. 

I’m calling on the government to bring in additional measures, to ensure these detention powers are used as a genuine last resort. In short, they should put special services in place to care for homeless people in disused buildings, vacated offices or empty hotels in our cities.

These facilities would provide a sanitised place in which to eat and keep clean; and safe spaces for vulnerable people to self-isolate with dignity, where there would be none within a detention facility following arrest. From these centres, government could also provide financial support and signposting to additional support services whilst service users were under its care.

This protective type of action will encourage vulnerable people with symptoms to come forward, rather than hide, in fear of arrest. It will ensure they follow the best advice on coronavirus and could accelerate a reduction in the number of rough sleepers to zero.

The approach I’ve suggested is more in keeping with our society’s compassionate, liberal and anti-authoritarian values, which we must protect and cling to, especially now. How we respond to crises says a lot about our character as a nation, and I want us to be the country who proactively looks after the homeless, rather than detaining them by default. 

As an MP, I will continue to raise these issues with the government and offer constructive solutions to the acute problems we face. It isn’t about tit-for-tat politics, which I’ve spoken out against over the past few days. It’s about working together to ensure our country’s liberal and compassionate values are protected, that any increase in police or government power is scrutinised and justified, and that the most vulnerable in our society are cared for with the kindness, dignity and respect they deserve. 


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