It didn't take long for the Tory/Lib Dem council to make life way harder for rough sleepers
York city centre – like many in the UK – is a sociological paradox. There's historic sights, hen parties, tourists – and also a lot of homeless people finding shelter where they can, be it in front of an ancient church, or under one of the only covered bus stops with benches long enough to sleep on. Now, the council has made it even harder for rough sleepers to find somewhere to sleep by affixing metal bars to benches so people can't lie down.
York has had a Labour council since 2011; and although there were initiatives to "clean up the streets", the council decided to try and solve the issue by introducing measures aimed at reducing the amount of homelessness in the city, such as YourHome, a scheme that helps people at risk of homelessness to find and also afford private accommodation.
But this didn't completely solve the issue. How could it, when the charities and councils trying to help the homeless were struggling against government cuts?
This election, Labour lost control of the Council, as the Tories and Lib Dems assumed more positions and joined together to lead the city's decisions. Fast-forward two months, to the "quick fix" they've put in place to end homelessness, a problem that has intensified countrywide since the Tories came to power.
Student journalist Jack Gevertz spotted six metal bars attached to a bus stop bench, put in place to deter "antisocial behaviour"; that is, homeless people finding a place to rest their heads. The rest of the country has seen similar tactics in the form of spikes or single seat bus stops, but this is the first instance of specifically "anti-homeless architecture" in York.
We spoke to Denise Craghill, the leader of the York Green Party, about the changes she's seen since the Tories got in power and whether there are any other initiatives the council could put in place to avoid homelessness.
She totally disagrees with the idea that we should solve homelessness by driving rough sleepers out of the city. "This sort of thing gives out the wrong message regarding people who are homeless," she said. "It implies we just want to drive them away to "somewhere else" like some kind of Elizabethan poor law".
Craghill acknowledged that drunk, noisy homeless people can be a nuisance, but questioned whether a sleeping person was intimidating. "I know that other people have felt intimidated at times by street drinkers, but the bars make no sense in that respect. All they deter is people sleeping and people sleeping can hardly be intimidating!"
The Green councillor also blamed coalition policies for the rise in homelessness. "While the general increase in homelessness is certainly linked to Tory/Lib Dem government policies such as the bedroom tax and benefits sanctions, the number of rough sleepers in the city centre is an issue that should concern everyone in York. I know that the issue can be complex and that some rough sleepers sometimes refuse overnight accommodation, but we should look into why that is and also into how the general public who want to help can be enabled to do so".
We asked her whether there was a way we could get homeless people off the streets without resorting to pushing them away with spikes or uninhabitable benches. The Greens are campaigning to introduce more affordable housing in York so people wouldn't be forced to go homeless because of rent prices.
Craghill said: "One issue the Green Group has been considering is looking into how the Council disposes of land and property it owns – on behalf of the people of York! This is relevant again to housing issues regarding the Co-housing proposals to provide affordable accommodation at Oliver House due for decision on Thursday. The Greens would like to see the Council support this innovative community based model for providing affordable housing."
It seems that there are ways that councils could help the homeless, and "clean up" the streets of our tourist cities without forcing homeless people out to another city where they're also made to feel unwelcome and stigmatised. But it also seems to be the case that cuts and cruel, quick fixes like uncomfortable architecture are on the agenda instead, at least in York.