A thought on Suella Braverman’s brutal comments on homelessness

Braverman’s crass comments about homelessness being a “lifestyle choice” have rightly attracted strong criticism. I am concerned that this speaks of a fear and brutality in her target audience that should ring alarm bells.

On 4 November she posted a series of tweets:

The British people are compassionate. We will always support those who are genuinely homeless. But we cannot allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents occupied by people, many of them from abroad, living on the streets as a lifestyle choice. 1/4

Unless we step in now to stop this, British cities will go the way of places in the US like San Francisco and Los Angeles, where weak policies have led to an explosion of crime, drug taking, and squalor. 2/4

Nobody in Britain should be living in a tent on our streets. There are options for people who don’t want to be sleeping rough, and the Government is working with local authorities to strengthen wraparound support including treatment for those with drug and alcohol addiction. 3/4

What I want to stop, and what the law abiding majority wants us to stop, is those who cause nuisance and distress to other people by pitching tents in public spaces, aggressively begging, stealing, taking drugs, littering, and blighting our communities. 4/4

This was picked up in the press with suggests that she plans a crackdown on the use of tents by homeless people and fines for some charities providing tents.

The realities (1) — mental health and homelessness

The web site of the charity Crisis puts it better than I can:

“Poor mental health is both a cause and consequence of homelessness. For example, the onset of mental illness can trigger, or be part of, a series of events that can lead someone being forced into homelessness.

“Furthermore, housing insecurity and homelessness is stressful and can exacerbate or cause mental health problems. This means that there is a higher rate of mental health problems amongst people without a home compared with the general population.

“45% of people experiencing homelessness have been diagnosed with a mental health issue. This rises to 8 out of 10 people who are sleeping rough.
Mental health issues are deeply connected to the trauma and adversity people who are homeless face.”

I could add individual stories of people I’ve known who are homeless, but in each case I also feel I should respect their privacy.

Some of these stories are around mental health crises in people’s lives. As I write, various people come to mind. It’s possible that some would see these as “exceptions”, but there seem to be rather a lot of exceptions. We can’t get away from the fact that the NHS is under strain, and mental health comes off badly in this. We’re dealing with two stigmas — of mental illness and of homelessness. That’s tough for anyone to handle.

On Remembrance Day, John Simpson joined up the dots:

“Remembering today not just the family members who fought and died in two world wars, but also my handsome, charming great-uncle Harold whose life was ruined by his injuries in WW1 and who died, homeless and alone, on a bench at Waterloo station in 1960; not a lifestyle choice.”

The realities (2) — housing

There are serious problems with housing provision in the UK. I could write a lot about why this is the case, and how hard the problem is to solve. It is undoubtedly complicated. But there are places where this goes from “long term policy” to immediate pain. One of the harsh points is where money issues turn into people losing their homes. I’ve heard lots of comments about evictions of people who get behind on rent or mortgage payments is if they are “to blame”. But what happens when things go wrong? Someone loses their job, there’s a divorce? The label “mental illness” get put on some of these things, but how many people are a lot closer to being in difficulty than they are comfortable saying?

A path back

I’ve heard people talk of the cost of the benefits system — with the implication that the state should act to minimise what it is paying out.

In a speech to the Conservative Party Conference in 1981, in the wake of riots in Handsworth and Brixton Norman Tebbit infamously said “I grew up in the 30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot; he got on his bike and looked for work and he kept looking ’til he found it.”. Which is fine if someone is able to get on their bike and find something. But what if they are gradually ground down by trying?

Experiences of severe poverty do lasting harm to people. They make it much harder to be optimistic, much harder to find ways of earning. An acute awareness of the downside if things go wrong make people reluctant to take risks. At the best of times that is bad, but we now live with rapid change. Many people need to change careers more than once: the wounds of poverty make it much harder for people to take the risk of leaving something that seems secure (for now) to train for something else. Yet that is what the country and the economy needs.

There’s some evidence from neuroscience of hardships having an impact on our brains. That backs up what gets phrased in more abstract terms in the psychoanalytic literature around trauma. We might treat some of this differently if we could talk openly about being injured.

We should be thinking of ways back for people in difficult circumstances, not ways to judge them.

… and the brutality of Braverman’s audience

What worries me is that labelling homeless a “lifestyle choice” absolves everyone else of responsibility. The person who has enough financial security to mean they have no real concept of how someone could become homeless can go on having no awareness. The person who has a niggling fear at the back of their mind gets an incentive to ignore the fear. Both can sleep easier in their beds because they have found a way to silence their fears. Maybe brutal policies towards “other people” who are less fortunate is important for helping them sleep.

Her evident distaste for “weak policies [that] have led to an explosion of crime, drug taking, and squalor” in the US gives perfect cover for a brutal attack on those who’ve fallen through the system.

There’s been speculation that Braverman is eyeing an attempt to become Tory leader. Her words horrified many people, but but perhaps not the members of her own party who would be voting in a leadership election. She’d be appealing to many of those who voted for Liz Truss.

These are people who can be loud, but are also afraid, trying to drown out the voice that says that changes in the world are making life more precarious for all of us. A wise leader would help people address those changes. Donald Trump gives a chilling example of how someone bent on power can get it by doing the opposite…

An alternative

I remember a conversation with a Liberal Democrat peer who spoke of a long conversation with someone begging on The Embankment. His question “What would make a difference to your life” opened a long and productive conversation. That’s an approach that might actually help homeless people. It’s also a good approach to government…


Suella Braverman’s time as Home Secretary came to an end in the reshuffle on 13 November 2023. For an instant it might have been possible to imagine that things had changed, but Andrea Jenkyn’s letter of no confidence later that day, and Braverman’s letter to the Prime Minister the next day both read like a declaration of war. Braverman may not have spoken for all Conservative MPs when she made these remarks, but they resonated with enough of her party to be alarming.

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