Stephen Gibney, a Liverpool man, was recently sentenced to eight weeks imprisonment for urinating on homeless man Richard Stanley, while he slept rough in Liverpool City Centre. District Judge Wendy Lloyd handed down the sentence not just for degrading Stanley as a person, but also for attacking his home. Justice Lloyd condemned the offence, calling it:
A deliberate act of degradation of a homeless person… it was his home, his little pitch where he was trying to establish himself as a human being… apparently, to you and your companion this was just a joke.
By recognising that a homeless person can have something akin to a home, the judge acknowledges that home is an abstract, nebulous and subjective idea – that the meaning of home can differ between people and contexts. People who are homeless in the legal sense often feel as if they have a home, whether that be a city, a particular neighbourhood, a family or a friendship group. Some even understand their home in connection to the land, or as a content state of mind.
By making these comments, Justice Lloyd affords Stanley the dignity of having a recognisable defensible space, marked out by his possessions, which to all intents and purposes is his home – and should be respected as such.
A changing city
Since the early 1980s, Liverpool has been undergoing economic, physical, social, political, reputational and cultural regeneration. These processes have picked up pace since 2003, when Liverpool was announced as the 2008 European Capital of Culture. This accolade proved to be the catalyst for a range of initiatives to clean up the city, ready for its big year.
Like many other cities across the globe – New York, during its 1990s drive to shake off its title of “murder capital of the world”; Sydney, in the run up to the 2000 Olympics and Glasgow in its preparations for its own European Capital of Culture year in 1990 – Liverpool’s authorities turned their attention to the city centre.
In Liverpool, rough sleepers, street drinkers and any other groups identified as “uncivilised” impediments to regeneration were singled out and subjected to a range of punitive measures, including the criminalisation of street drinking and begging, designed to clear them from view. It was all part of the bid to present the city as prosperous and cultured, and to free it of its previous reputation for poverty, crime and post-industrial decline.
Scorned, not supported
Views of rough sleepers as anathema to prosperity and progress stem from the false belief that they must, by definition, perform all bodily functions – from urination and defecation to sleep and sex – in public spaces rather than a private home. Because of this, rough sleepers are seen as uncivilised – and consequently unwelcome – by authorities determined to attract business and tourism.
This has led, in some quarters, to the vilification of “visible” homeless people – particularly where their homelessness is seen as a “lifestyle choice” – on the basis that they wilfully stand in the way of social, economic and cultural progress. They are a social element to be scorned, rather than supported: a view which may have led Gibney – a man with a home in the conventional sense – to perform the kind of bodily function on Stanley, which is more often unfairly attributed to rough sleepers.
Once it is recognised that the idea of “home” applies beyond a formal abode of bricks and mortar, many more violations come to light: from the clearance of informal settlements, to the enforced displacement of whole populations.
For example, consider the forced removal of the population of Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Indian Ocean, to nearby Mauritius because the US military needed a refuelling base. The phenomenon is so widespread that it has even been given a name – domicide. The “-cide” suffix connotes murder: the deliberate, calculated and wilful killing of a home.
By thinking of the destruction of “home” as an act of killing, we recognise the its true value – home means so much more than simply a place or a building. And, although the meaning of home varies from person to person, those who lose their home – for whatever reason – almost universally experience shock, grief and bereavement. Justice Lloyd’s comments on handing down Gibney’s sentence reflect two vital but overlooked truths: that home has meaning beyond bricks and mortar and that being homeless does not necessarily mean having no home at all.