On 25 March 2021 the City of Brighton & Hove voted (by 31 votes to 11, with 7 abstentions) to adopt the Homeless Bill of Rights. (The text, and much other material related to the campaign, may be found at the website: The Homeless Bill of Rights.) What does this mean? What does this document address? What does it try and achieve, and what were the dissenters saying?
Three councillors spoke against the Bill, two conservative and one who was one of six Labour councillors that broke the whip in order to abstain. I shall take her speech for my text (the other two were similar). She thought that respect should be afforded to homeless people. However, she had two reservations about the Bill. Article 11, she said,
says that people have a right to beg in the city. Most people know we have a huge problem with begging, particularly aggressive begging, and pre-covid many areas of the city became no-go areas as people felt intimidated and threatened. It is also well-known that most begging is related to drug use rather than homelessness, and that there is a lot of exploitation of beggars by pimps and drug dealers.
She said that homeless people can get food across the city in many different ways (and so don’t need to beg). She also had a problem with tents; she said that the Bill allowed
a permissive environment where tents can pop up everywhere across the city. For several years on Hove lawns we had tents that caused real distress to residents, with open drug dealing taking place and leaving an insightly and insanitary mess.
She said that tents are not safe for homeless people, particularly women. She added that many people in tents “hide behind the curtain of homelessness to get a free staycation in sunny Brighton.” She would not support “the widespread proliferation of tents and begging” and she thought the city’s approach should “take all residents into account” (the speech may be viewed here at 3:36).
What may the listener take from this speech? It associates homeless people with aggressive begging, with pimps and drug dealers, with insanitary mess, with danger to women, with being staycationing frauds. Some of the turns of phrase seem deliberately designed to evoke disease, infestation, horror. The reference to “no-go areas” – a huge exaggeration – harks back to Trump’s racist designations of British cities.
The speaker was the lead councillor for homelessness from 2015 to 2019. This way of speaking about homeless people, while perhaps slightly exaggerated here for political effect, is standard among some politicians and more worryingly among officers and senior voluntary sector executives; it is the hegemonic discourse.
The effect of this discourse is to strip homeless people of dignity and humanity and to construct them as other, non-human, feral. It declares that homeless people only require food, that unlike ordinary people they have no need of money. Tents are problematic because people may stay in tents rather than “access services”; never mind that sleeping in a tent is safer in every way than sleeping on the street. It locates and confines homeless people as objects of NGO and local authority services; their place is to be grateful recipients of those services; it is not their place to have rights, agency or dignity. They are visible everywhere, but in another way they are invisible; they are not seen or counted as part of the community. They are a nuisance, or at best a problem.
We can turn to Jacques Rancière to help us conceptualize this. For him, the existing state of affairs is the “police” order — understood as a “distribution of the sensible”; the arrangement of all the parts of society, its places and groups, occupations and justifications, each in their place, without anything being left out. Such a distribution of the sensible also arranges what can be seen, what can be heard, what counts as discourse or community. Homeless people are not merely in a situation of grave material disadvantage. In addition, it is a question of where they are placed by society visually, spatially, and in speech; of discourses that construct them as objects rather than subjects of rights, discourses in which they cannot participate; of visibility and invisibility, racialization and marginalization; a policed order, structured by the law. These structures and arrangements can be disturbed and challenged by actions creating a dissensus, by a politics bringing together this world and a different world where homeless people are equal in rights and dignity. One example of such a politics was the campaign for Brighton & Hove to adopt the Homeless Bill of Rights.
We are living in a world-wide housing crisis, of which the single most visible and unbearable symptom is the street homeless person. Annual estimated deaths in England and Wales of homeless people (people sleeping rough, or using emergency accommodation such as homeless shelters and direct access hostels) have risen from 482 in 2013 to 778 in 2019. The average age at death was 46 for men, 43 for women (as against 76 and 81 in the general population) (ONS 2020). The number of people sleeping rough was estimated at 4,266 in October 2019 by a “snapshot” count, an increase of 141% since 2010 (MHCLG 2020); its inaccuracy became clear during the covid-19 pandemic, where the “everyone in” policy has seen 33,000 housed by November 2020 (NAO 2020). This programme may seem to offer some hope, but it is not intended to last beyond the pandemic, and as emergency measures such as the eviction ban and furlough come to an end a large increase in homelessness is expected. Pre-covid, Brighton & Hove has consistently been in the ten local authorities reporting the highest levels of rough sleeping.
The Homeless Bill of Rights was launched in 2017 by FEANTSA, the European umbrella organization for homelessness NGOs, to combat the increasing stigmatization and criminalization of homeless people across Europe. Brighton and Hove Housing Coalition, an organization of housing activists of which I am a member, was campaigning on a number of issues around the objectification of people experiencing homelessness when we encountered it. It was key for us that Article 1 of the Homeless Bill of Rights is in effect the right to housing. Some human rights are incorporated into English law, but the right to housing is not; it is an obligation on the state in international law, and in so far as there are people who are unwillingly homeless the state is in breach of the law. It is in that breach, in that space of state lawlessness, that the Homeless Bill of Rights exists and has its force. In this way it refuses the danger that we were very conscious of, that it might itself work to the institutionalization or acceptance of homelessness. Once the breach is closed and the right to housing is made effective, its space and role is gone.
The remaining rights derive from the real experience of life without a home. The speaker quoted claimed that it gave a right to beg in the city; what article 11 in fact says is that if people who are homeless beg out of desperate need, they should not be criminalized (which of course is futile as well as cruel). Another right she disliked, Article 12, was that respect should be given to the belongings of homeless people, including their tents, and that they should not be removed without compelling need. They should have the right to an address, to vote, and to adequate sanitary facilities. There should be enough shelters of one kind or another that no-one should be forced to sleep rough.
There are problems with using human rights in activism, but we felt that in this particular case they could be used in a powerful and effective way. In the struggle against the objectification of homeless people, the Homeless Bill of Rights recasts them as subjects, as free and equal in dignity and rights, without regard to legal divisions into local and not local, deserving or not deserving, with papers or without papers.
We tweaked the English translation of the Bill of Rights to make it more colloquial and added two more articles to address concerns of local rough sleepers. FEANTSA were fine with this, and their policy officer, María José Aldanas, came to our launch of the Bill in October 2018 along with the chair of Just Fair, a UK NGO promoting social and economic rights. Following the launch, it was adopted by both the Green party and the Labour party in their manifestos for the local elections 2019. Nevertheless it has taken two more years for the adoption to take place, years of campaigning, petitions, deputations, questions, demonstrations, speeches and papers, against strong opposition from officers and some politicians; partly along the lines set out in the speech analysed, partly out of a justified anxiety that it would be used as a stick to beat them with.
Along the way, a Constituency Labour Party from a neighbouring town (with our strong support) took a motion to the Labour Party Conference 2019 urging the adoption of the Homeless Bill of Rights, and it was adopted as Labour Party policy.
Now we are celebrating. Now, when the Homeless Bill of Rights is incorporated into the council’s Homelessness and Rough Sleepers Strategy 2020-2025 and has been formally adopted “as an aspirational document and as the standard against which the Council and its partners judge its policies and practices and outcomes”, it is no longer a dissensus, it has become part of the police order, although of course one kind of police may be infinitely better than another (Rancière 1998: 31) and hopefully this represents some improvement. We also hope that other cities across the UK may be inspired by our example. But more importantly, we hope that it has become “an inscription, a writing of the community as free and equal” that we and others can use to create new dissensus in the future (Rancière 2010, 68). This is the beginning, not the end.
David Thomas is a PhD candidate at Birkbeck College and a housing activist.
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. 2020a. Rough Sleeping Snapshot in England: Autumn 2019. LINK
National Audit Office. 2020. Investigation into the housing of rough sleepers during the COVID-19 pandemic. LINK
Office for National Statistics. 2020. Deaths of Homeless People in England and Wales: 2019. LINK
Rancière, J. 1998. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Rancière, Jacques, and Corcoran, Steven. 2010. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. London: Continuum.