Comment

‘Drug policies are failing to reduce harm’

Tammy Hymas, councillor for St Ann’s ward, on
rough sleeping in the area and which community
groups are genuinely making a difference
By Tammy Hymas

Living in Haringey, it’s hard to ignore the growing problems we face with rough sleepers and related addiction issues. Between April and June this year, the number of rough sleepers in London rose by 16% with the government’s inaction on the cost of living emergency pushing even more people to the brink of homelessness. People who sleep rough often face multiple disadvantages, including high levels of mental ill-health and addiction. With deaths from drug poisoning in England and Wales reaching their highest levels in 2021 since records began back in 1993, local authorities are facing an escalating epidemic.

In the area I represent, St Ann’s, one of the most common concerns that I hear are around rough sleepers and people addicted to drugs. Whether on Green Lanes, in Chestnuts Park or around Seven Sisters Station, we have all sadly seen vulnerable people clearly in desperate need of long-term support. As a councillor, I’ll be honest in saying that there are no easy answers to these issues knowing that our combined crises in addiction and rough sleeping require deep, systemic changes in how we approach our most vulnerable residents.

It’s increasingly clear that the ‘law and order’ approach of successive governments to addiction and rough sleeping is not working. The criminalisation of drug use justifies state-sanctioned harassment of communities of colour through stop and search (Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people) and leads to increased rates of incarceration. At the same time, almost two in five deaths of homeless people were related to drug overdoses in 2020. Put simply, drug policies are failing to reduce harm, and serve to maintain the oppression of poor, disadvantaged and ethnic minority communities.

When St Ann’s residents have reached out to me, understandably worried about the wellbeing of street drug users, local police have been honest that their default approach of ‘moving people on’ only reinforces their instability. This is not sustainable. Equally, many rough sleepers have irregular immigration status and police intervention puts them at risk of deportation under our punitive border regime.

I’m proud of the public health approach to rough sleeping and addiction pioneered by Haringey Council since 2018. Our dedicated multi-resource hub at Mulberry Junction, which opened in 2019, has supported hundreds of single people at risk of homelessness. Last year, Haringey became the first council in London to provide modular homes for those in desperate need of a safe and secure roof over their head.

Haringey also has one of the largest number of bed spaces for homeless people affected by immig ration restrictions in London, with our innovative practices in this area contributing to Homeless Link’s best practice roadmap for tackling non-UK national homelessness across the country. Our decision to refuse to cooperate with the Home Office, who have threatened to make rough sleeping grounds for deportation, shows the difference a genuinely anti-racist party in power can make.

I continue to find hope in the many community groups who share my commitment to defending our most marginalised residents. In my ward, campaigners set up ‘N15 Copwatch’ who have held training on bystander interventions to monitor and oppose police harassment of vulnerable residents. Every Saturday, Haringey Anti Raids hold a stall on Green Lanes building a network to resist immigration raids. On Sundays, Streets Kitchen serves hot food at Seven Sisters, with their strapline ‘solidarity not charity’ encapsulating their approach to rough sleepers.

It’s clear to me that the solutions to rough sleeping and drug addiction will not be found in ever greater criminalisation, but in approaches that prioritise harm reduction and deepening community resilience.

Tammy Hymas is a Labour Party councillor in St Ann’s ward. If you are a resident, you can get in touch on tammy. [email protected] or 07814 373419


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