Monday, 28 February 2011

Westminster and the homeless - how UK Uncut are completely wrong and misleading


The latest UK Uncut fib relates to Westminster Council's proposals to "fine the homeless":

Westminster city council, the richest and most powerful council in the UK, is proposing a new bye-law to ban rough sleeping and “soup runs” in the Victoria area of London. The proposed new bye-law will make it an offence punishable by a fine to “sleep or lie down”, “deposit materials used as bedding” and to “give out, or permit another to give out, food for free”.

Clearly this is the work of Evil Tories as they crush the poor and vulnerable? How very dare they!

But when you look briefly into the matter it doesn't quite seem that way at all:

Westminster Council wants to pass a byelaw to stop rough sleeping and soup runs on Westminster Cathedral piazza and the surrounding area.

Westminster Council announced yesterday it has launched a consultation on the proposals with residents, businesses, local day centres and hostels and the voluntary sector.

If it gets a positive response from this, it will ask the Communities and Local Government department to pass a byelaw. It wants this in place by October.

Westminster Council estimates up to 100 people at a time congregate around the piazza while food is being given out and said people travel into the area to receive food hand-outs. The council has said vulnerable adults will be asked to leave the area before being subjected to any enforcement.

So why is the Council doing this? Here's a representative of homeless charity St Mungo's on the subject:

‘While we recognize the compassion involved in providing food to vulnerable people, those in distress and rough sleeping need services that will support them off the streets for good and give them the opportunity for longer term better housing, health and work as they move on with their lives.’

And, for good measure the Chief Executive of another homeless charity, Thames Reach:

‘Street handouts do little to help people make the step away from rough sleeping. Instead they frequently prevent people from facing up to the reality of the harmful lifestyle they have adopted.

‘The Westminster Cathedral piazza and surrounding area has been the focus for soup run activity and rough sleeping for many years and this has inevitably had a detrimental impact on the lives of people living and working in the immediate vicinity.’

So it seems that, in truth Westminster are working alongside homeless charities to try and deliver better support to rough sleepers!

So UK Uncut lied?



Ellie Dawes said...

Hmm the fact that Westminister doesn't want people to give the homeless food is not actually evidence that they are "working alongside homeless charities to try and deliver better support to rough sleepers."

Can we have the evidence that the council is providing these "services that will support them off the streets for good" please. Otherwise fining homeless people for being on the street and stopping people from giving them food still sounds like the work of evil bastards to me.

Simon Cooke said...

@Ellie Dawes

The Inside Housing article quoted not one but TWO homelessness charities working in Westmintster that broadly supported what Westminster are trying to achieve - I suppose we could trawl around loads of others but it seems to me that Westminster's proposals are good policy rather than anything to do with cuts.

North Briton 45 said...

UK Uncut have certainly been liberal in their interpretations of Westminster Council's plans.

For several years I worked on a local newspaper covering this area and am familiar with a host of initiatives WCC have employed to clear the area of homeless.

It is a persistent problem and one which this looks unlikely to change.

The charities quoted in the Westminster City Council press release both do good work and have a good point to make, but the characters who gather at the piazza are rarely ones who have properly engaged with homeless charities. They tend to be the long term homeless, alcoholics etc, who have been out of the system for a long time.

The soup runs, food hand outs from Pret-a-Manger, support they get from cathedral is quite vital to them.

Regardless of the consultation and any subsequent bylaw introduced, these characters will still gather and congregate.

The other problem is Westminster Council has persistently underestimated the numbers of homeless on their streets, for years. It's not just a Tory council, Labour have done exactly the same over the last decade or so.

Incidentally, while this measure is relatively benign and will prove ultimately pointless, WCC have suggested some pretty unpleasant ways of dispersing the homeless. One idea I remember while I worked on the patch was to spray anyone who lingered longer than a certain period of time in one of the covered walkways near Westminster Piazza during certain hours of the night with water.

It was thankfully pretty swiftly dropped.

North Briton 45 said...

@ Simon Cooke

I haven't read the Inside Housing copy, but the quotations to which you refer do appear to have originated in the Westminster City Council press release:

Simon Cooke said...

Thanks @North Briton 45

The Inside Housing article is linked to from the blog - however it clearly drew on the WCC press release.

However, I guess that the two charoties wouldn't have allowed the quotes without approval - which does suggest that WCC are working with these charities in responding to the issues.

On the rough sleeper count I agree - the old methodology was a joke and the new one doesn't improve much.

The main point is however that - whether or not this is the right policy response - it isn't wrongly motivated.

North Briton 45 said...

@ Simon Cooke

It's motivation might be perfectly honourable, though WCC are clearly trying to appear decisive.

Their own headline reads:

'Soup runs and rough sleeping could be banned at Westminster Cathedral Piazza'

Rough sleeping won't be banned at the Piazza, it will continue.

And as I said, it's not the first time I've seen such an initiative.

And yes, the charities are clearly signed up to aspects of the council's case. It's absolutely right to try and get people off the streets and get them into secure accommodation and into the housing system.

However, this is impossible to do when undercounting of the homeless has gone on for years and there are insufficient facilities for the homeless everywhere in London, no more so than the West End.

So, as I said, while their motivation be perfectly honourable, their tactics are completely undermined by their failure to recognise the reality of the situation. Simply pretending to sound tough will achieve nothing.

Having said all of that, I saw UKUncut's original piece, which I think was inspired by a press release from Paul Dimoldenberg (the Labour group leader at WCC) and think their reaction was a bit kneejerk and misleading.