HCAW Blog #6: Homeless Hate: The pandemic’s impact on prejudice

Emily Wertans

Although not traditionally viewed as hate crime victims, the homeless are regularly subjected to abuse, hostility, exclusion and violence. With scarce physical protection coupled with ineffective and underutilised legislative support, homeless individuals are in many ways ‘easy targets’. In a Covid-19 climate consumed by fears around health, safety and acting on assumptions to protect the self, the risk of even greater levels of hate being directed towards homeless people is a real and present threat yet one omitted from conversations in hate studies.

Hate against the homeless as an established concept

For many years, the rate of homelessness in the UK has been rising. In fact, since 2010 the number of rough sleepers is said to have increased by 141% with an estimate of 4,266 people ‘sleeping rough’ each night in England alone – although this figure is likely to be vastly underestimated. In parallel, accounts of harassment, violence and hostility against the homeless have multiplied exponentially with Crisis’ research revealing that rough sleepers are almost 17 times more likely to be victims of violence than the general public. Click-bait stories detailing grotesque violence, neglect and humiliation are routinely displayed in the media. In August 2020 the Guardian headlined “Homeless man cried ‘why are you doing this to me?’ as he was beaten to death, court told”, describing the case of 66-year old Paul Tavelardis being kicked, punched and left for dead by two young men who were unknown to him.

However, rhetoric around prevention and the long-term impact of these very real attacks are as absent as the victims’ voices: so too is police force monitoring of targeted hostility as incidents of hate. As such, very little data exists in England and Wales recording the extent of such acts, with a similar global picture. Nonetheless, what little research has been conducted on targeted hostility against the homeless has uncovered disproportionately extreme physical and sexual violence, with examples of mutilation, torture and murder – as exemplified by the case of 64-year old Francis Dunne who was the second homeless person within two months to have been decapitated in Cork, Ireland. This limited research also highlights how the perpetrators are most commonly members of the public with no known relationship to the victims.

Covid-19: Increased risk of illness, hostility and demonisation

In the current climate of Covid-19, although the virus is said to be controlled, the risk of hate crime is not. The public have been mobilised and called to action to police each other’s behaviour. For example, cases are being reported in abundance in which those exempt from mask wearing have been demonised. With the public angry, scared and entitled to challenge others based on assumption – and often stereotypes – the opportunity for hostile attitudes and actions is more legitimised than ever.

For the homeless, a group whose life is not Covid-19 compliant by nature, this risk has amplified demonstrably. Examples of rules that they are unrealistically expected to follow include regular sanitation, social distancing, staying inside and not mixing with others. With these rules impossible or improbable, how this is perceived by others can be seen to pose a very real threat to the safety of homeless populations. Accounts from rough-sleepers detail that many choose to ‘buddy up’ for safety – a self-preservation technique that in the current conditions exposes them to increased hostility from the public.

Beyond the elevated risk of individual level hostility and prejudice, homeless people are increasingly likely to be demonised and persecuted on a structural level in a Covid-19 climate. Although some ‘high risk’ homeless people were temporarily housed during the UK’s lockdown, most have now had this revoked and been returned to the streets. Despite extended periods of time spent outdoors diametrically opposed to the government’s own health advice, the retraction of resources and support means this is an unavoidable reality for many homeless people.

In addition, legislating the above restrictions also demonises and criminalises homelessness by definition. Further compounding the problem already caused by existing vagrancy laws, being unavoidably illegal or engaging in illegal behaviours is nothing new for the homeless population. Poor relationships with the police are equally as established, with Crisis’ data revealing that 53% of the homeless people asked had not reported their victimisation to the police due to believing that they would not action a response. Given the pandemic is placing an undue strain upon an already fatigued public, close attention to the impact this might have on hostility against the homeless will be vital, as indeed will the police’s use of their new powers.

What’s next?

In an austere economic climate of growing unemployment, bankruptcy and tenancy evictions, we are likely to see levels of homelessness grow further in the UK over the coming months and years. Previous examples of social hardship, particularly recessions and economic downturns, have acted as a catalyst for hate, prejudice and discrimination; targeted particularly towards communities perceived to be a drain on the economy. In the current circumstances, that same hate, prejudice and discrimination could be easily directed towards the homeless.

With the very real potential for continued and growing hostility towards the homeless, it is not only important to acknowledge that the issue exists but also how, at present, we still do not know the scale of this problem. With no national recording of homeless hate, in addition to vast underreporting from victims, the true scale, nature, impact and nuance is widely unknown. In a time of increased risk and little resource made available to hear or support the homeless, the need for involvement from authentic voices within research and policy is vital for meaningful and sustained progression.

Emily Wertans is a Doctoral Researcher and Teaching Fellow in the School of Criminology at the University of Leicester. Emily has worked within the charity sector and academia researching harassment, exclusion and methods to engage overlooked communities within research.

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