Squall 4, April/May 1993, pp. 12-13.
One of the features of the Government’s consultation paper on traveller legislation is the consistent emphasis on the “encouragement” to be given to travellers to settle in permanent accommodation and educational institutions.
“They don’t have any idea of the realities of the situation,” says Mary Cowie, a social worker and housing adviser. “Last week the council stuck an Irish travelling family, with nine children, in a flat above an antique shop in Hampstead. Of course the children weren’t used to such a cramped, settled situation and ran round the street playing and causing mischief. The owner of the antique shop organised a petition to have them removed. Anyone with a knowledge of the real issue could have predicted this would have happened, especially in Hampstead.
"It’s just two different ways of living. The best solution is to organise more of the settled sites that the Caravan Sites Act was supposed to make statutory.”
Despite the legal obligations on local authorities to provide for travellers, only 38% of them have complied since the act came into force in 1968. The reason for this poor response are two fold.
Firstly, many local councils quite simply do not want travellers in their borough and so drag their heels on making any provision for them. The Government, for their part, have been slow to ensure that local authorities try harder and now claim that their failure to do so is because the original idea was a bad one.
Secondly, some councils have faced, at times rabid, opposition from local residents when they have attempted to set up a site.
“Many people complain that travellers are dirty and create a mess wherever they go,” says Mary, “but if you have no toilets, no washing facilities and no dustbins you may well end up looking scruffier than your average citizen. If more sites were provided then these facilities would be available without having to force travellers to forsake their way of life which introduces problems of its own, like those in Hampstead.”
"Councils view travellers as a bit of a nuisance," says Hanna Dalton, a teacher and educational advice worker with travellers. "Travelling children are used to being able to roam and don't adjust easily to classroom life. As long as care and acknowledgement of their added difficulties is given, the children can settle in, but councils are not that bothered with what they see as time-consuming, financially draining attention for a 'nuisance' minority. On top of this, the new stricter National Curriculum syllabus will render it even harder for these children to find their place in the classroom."
Mandy Harby works with children of multi-ethnic origin, including Romany and Irish travellers, at the Field Lane Homeless Families Centre near Kings Cross. She too is well aware of the hostile reaction travellers face from settled society.
“We have some Polish Romany children visiting us at the moment and I feel they have needed help to find dignity in their own identity but they are hesitant to open up due to past experiences. One child has a long scar where he was driven out of his local school in Poland by other children with broken glass. The parents also found it difficult to find a Catholic priest who would agree to christen their children.”
If you walk into the play room at the Field Lane Centre you will see a large stretch of card on the wall with drawings of caravans, carts and camels arranged upon it. This is a frieze that the children visiting the centre have been encouraged to create and has ‘Travellers of the World’ as its theme. “On the left we have the green caravan that was drawn by the Irish children,” annotates Mandy. “In the middle we have the Romany carts and the dogs drawn by the Polish Romany children. They lived in these carts in the summer and stayed in shacks in the winter. Next we have drawings done by Bengali children of the travellers they have in Bengal with purple robes and gold braid. The camels and shacks on the right are pictures drawn by Afghani children to describe the travellers in their country. “It is amazing to realise that the further east you go the more respect they have for their native travellers. Afghani Nomads are held in high esteem in their country and are exempt from national service. It is a positive experience for the Irish and Romany children to hear that travellers are given respect in these far eastern countries but I wish for goodness sake it would catch on here.”
A CRIME TO BE HOMELESS?
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