What do we do about Sunny?

The recent furore regarding Sunny James and the removal of his belongings from public property reminded me that the London Homeless Coalition needs a position statement on how to address people experiencing homelessness engaging in private behaviours in public spaces. This issue actually harkens back to the lock down of the Victoria Park bandshell in 2014, and before that the increased ticketing of people experiencing homelessness around the World Figure Skating Championships in 2013.

This is by no means a local issue, as municipalities around the world frequently turn to ticketing as a response to managing behaviours in public spaces, here’s one today from the UK: Homeless people in Oxford threatened with £2,500 fines

So, I’ve taken a crack at it and would be interested in feedback on the wording and the approach. Please note, this is just a DRAFT and in no way reflects policy of the London Homeless Coalition.

BACKGROUND: People experiencing homelessness often spend a significant amount of time in public places. Within these public places they may engage in activities normally done in private. This can include sitting/laying/sleeping, storing of personal effects, consumption of substances, intimate relationships, or attending to one’s personal needs. The root factor for engaging in these activities in public is the lack of personal, private space. Many of these activities are offences under municipal by-laws or the criminal code. This position statement is pertinent to City staff, business owners, by-law officers, London Police Services, and the general public. Preventing and ending homelessness would alleviate these issues, however, until such time, the following is our position:

POSITION 1: The following principles should guide any interactions with people experiencing homelessness who are engaging in private activities in public spaces:

  1. Compassion – In considering the appropriate response, all persons should come from a position of compassion, acknowledging that engaging in private behaviours publicly is not deliberate, but is rather of function of lacking personal, private space to do so.
  2. Relationship – If approaching individuals experiencing homelessness regarding behaviours in a public space, all persons should first seek to come to know and understand the individual and their circumstances.
  3. Least Punitive Response – Although ticketing or temporary incarceration may address the immediate issue, neither have been proven to be effective long-term in ending homelessness and the consequent public activities. In fact, ticketing has been shown to be an additional barrier to permanently exiting homelessness. Therefore, if coming from a position of compassion and relationship, behaviours must be addressed, this should be done by seeking mutually agreeable alternatives to punishment.
  4. Advocacy – Any person engaged in confronting public behaviours of people experiencing homelessness can be of assistance to systemic change. By bringing their experiences of dealing with such issues to tables such as the London Homeless Coalition, they can help us and our partners find more effective long-term solutions.

Position 2: Major events can place a particular strain on these issues. Increased policing and security around such events can lead to increased punitive interactions based on private activities done in public spaces. Therefore, in addition to the above principles, we would add the following regarding major events:

  1. Discretion – All individuals in public spaces should be generally left alone unless they are of harm to themselves or others. For example, there is no reason to engage with people who are legally panhandling within the guidelines of the Safe Streets Act. Threats of ticketing or arrest should not be used as a means to move people out of sight of those attending the major event.
  2. Human rights – All individuals have a right to be present in public spaces, this includes individuals displaying symptoms of an active mental health challenge. Activities perceived as abnormal, if legal and of no harm to self and others, are not justification for confronting an individual in a public space.
  3. Collaboration – Increased policing and security may unintentionally lead to the observation of behaviours that are illegal under municipal by-laws or the criminal code. Persons addressing these behaviours are encouraged to work collaboratively with street outreach or mental health crisis services in considering their response to these behaviours.

Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/12567713@N00/ under creative commons license.