'A lot of the attacks are alcohol-related and the homeless are easy prey'

Merseyside police find amount of violence against rough sleepers has doubled in five years

Mark, 38, was sleeping rough on Mathew Street in Liverpool city centre when a group of teenage boys beat him up and tried to set him on fire.

“They tried to set my sleeping bag alight by throwing matches at it,” he tells the Guardian from a room at the Whitechapel Centre, a housing charity in the city. “I don’t even ask for anything. If people choose to give to me then that’s fine, but I don’t ask and I don’t expect to be abused. I am just trying to get back into society.”

Mark has been homeless for about two and half years, during which he has also been spat at and called a “smackhead”. He has noticed a rise in the level of abuse he faces, something he puts down to a growing number of homeless people on the streets.

There has been a spate of recent attacks on people sleeping on Britain’s streets. Last week a man suffered burns after his tent was set on fire in a busy Cardiff shopping street; days earlier a rough sleeper in a tent was kicked by a passerby in Hull city centre.

In Liverpool last week, police investigated reports that a young woman threw a glass bottle at a homeless man in the city centre. A few months ago a homeless man was injured when a lit firework was placed in his pocket.

But despite concerns about rising attacks, a Guardian investigation has found that only a handful of police forces specifically record crimes against rough sleepers and the homeless, prompting leading campaigners and charities to call for forces to improve their record-keeping and attitude to dealing with attacks.

Merseyside police, who cover the city of Liverpool and its surrounding boroughs, are at the forefront of recording crimes against the homeless.

The force’s figures reveal that violence against homeless people has more than doubled in the past five years, from 101 incidents a year to 264. Actual bodily harm, common assault and grievous bodily harm are the most common violent offences committed against homeless people in the region. All offences rose in 2018 following steady increases in the past five years. A handful of slavery offences, threats to kill and forced labour offences have also been recorded.

Lindsey Dixon, a homeless outreach worker at the Royal Liverpool hospital, has met people who have been assaulted because of their homelessness. She tells the story of a homeless man whose walking frame was stolen, and of men and women in sleeping bags being kicked or urinated upon.

“A lot of the attacks are alcohol-related and the homeless are easy prey,” Dixon says. “The attacks can be by people of all walks of society really, maybe it’s related to the rise in violent crime in general.”

Dixon also believes the problem is being exacerbated by the greater numbers of people on the streets. She says there is a lot of theft and reports of homeless people fighting each another.

“In Liverpool we are lucky because we are the first city to have homeless discharge workers in hospitals. We have some of the best services outside of London,” she says.

David Gallagher, 44, from Liverpool, has slept rough in the past but now lives in his own accommodation. He says one solution to the rise in violence is to give homeless people attack alarms. “While sleeping rough I’ve been battered and slashed and everything. Violence never comes from other homeless people, we look after each other,” he says. “My message is: give other homeless people a chance. They are not all bad, so give them a chance and listen to them. Talk to them and see where they are coming from.”

Liverpool’s mayor, Joe Anderson, has suggested making attacks against homeless people a hate crime, so they are in a protected category and police have to record information about them. He wrote a letter to the home secretary, Sajid Javid, earlier this year.

Anderson is not sure why there appears to be a rise in attacks on homeless people. “We get a mixed postbag,” he says. “Some say we should do more for the homeless and others say we should get the homeless off the streets. The difficulty is trying to explain to the public the complexity … Some don’t understand homelessness and the fact it can happen for a lot of different reasons. Most of these attacks are after people have been drinking as well.”

Gallagher believes educating people about the various reasons for homelessness is a good idea. “Rough sleeping is hard and I lost all my family. I started smoking heroin and crack and drinking. I’ve now turned my life around and am out of rehab. I am helping other homeless people.”


Sarah Marsh and Patrick Greenfield

The GuardianTramp

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