20 March 2011

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses: just not in Westminster

Throughout mythology and folk tales, a tried and tested method for Gods and Kings to test the state of their kingdom was to don the rags of a beggar and walk the streets to see if the great and the good were indeed so great or good.

Were a latter-day deity or monarch to pitch up in Westminster, then far from hoping to get fed and tended, they may well in the future fall foul of a Council by-law which would make it an offence to give food to the hungry or for the tired or sick to lie down.

Similarly, if the sermon on the mount were relocated outside Westminster Cathedral, the redistribution of fishes and bread would be a fine on conviction.

It would be hard to miss the proposals from Westminster City Council to criminalise the distribution of food and lieing down or sleeping in an area of Westminster.

The Council's website describes this as a move "backed by Homeless Charities" and the text on the website focusses on the issue of Soup Runs, asserting that the soup runs turn the area "into a no-go area for many residents and businesses with issues around litter, urination, violence and disorder."

Few people would disagree that there has been a long-standing need to ensure that any agencies distributing free food are well co-ordinated and take responsibility for ensuring that mess is cleared up afterwards. This concern is nothing new and the same discussions were taking place back as far as the early 90s when Homeless Network attempted to provide some coordination amongst the soup-run providers.

But the proposals from Westminster Council go far beyond criminalising the distribution of food. They prohibit lieing down or sleeping in the public places covered by the order - making it an offence to "lie down or sleep in or on any public place."

If the legislation is passed - and at present it is only the subject of consultation - anyone distributing refreshment or lieing down in the designated area would comit an offence and could be fined.

When the Council asserts that this move is "backed by Homeless Charities" it is hard to find a queue of them supporting the measure. St Mungos for example fall far short of backing the measure and instead state that they do not support the proposed ban on rough sleeping.

The main cheerleader for the measure in the voluntary sector seems to be Thamesreach whose Chief Executive Jeremy Swain is quoted on the Westminster Council website as saying: 
"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.
“It is reasonable that the council should seek to introduce a bye-law covering this specific area whilst at the same time continuing to commit resources towards ending rough sleeping in the borough."

It is not clear from this statement if Mr. Swain is endorsing both the criminalisation of soup runs and the further criminalisation of rough sleeping. So far he has not deigned to cover the issue in his Blog. In the Guardian he is quoted as defending the proposal, but with the caveat "This is not a borough-wide ban, which I would oppose." We look forward to Mr Swain joining the protests when such a borough-wide extension takes place as it surely will if this initial bye-law is passed.

Nor is it entirely clear how fining people who sleep rough helps anyone. Unable to pay fines, people will be required to beg more or face short prison sentences for unpaid fines - which will simply eat in to Police and court time and increase the isolation and stigma faced by people who are homeless or vulnerably housed.

But in truth there are others whose stated stance (or lack thereof)  in relation to this legislation is more craven. Of these the most notable must be Westminster Cathedral. The deafening silence from this quarter, other than to lament:
"Of those homeless people who congregate in the area, there is a minority of hard drinkers and drug takers who cause residents and visitors distress, which I have witnessed and been told about," a Westminster cathedral representative told the council. "During the day they can often be seen in groups of up to 15, and this can dramatically increase in the evenings with the soup runs."

Given such an abandonment of the poor and huddled masses of South Westminster, it is hard to read the Westminster Cathedral website without astonishment at the hypocrisy therein.

In the news section, Father Witon happily burbles: 
"CAFOD believes that all human beings have a right to dignity and respect, and that the world's resources are a gift to be shared equally by all men and women, whatever their race, nationality or religion”.
One of the saints said: “the best place to keep your money safe is in the stomachs of the poor”. It is in this spirit that we are all invited to be generous with those who can never say that they have too much on their plate

Clearly this sentiment doesn't extend to the poor of South Westminster.

This is perhaps where localism and the Big Society have their first head-on clash: the Big Society expects people to give their time and their energy to take on rolls which the state is increasingly unable or unwilling to fund - like care of the poor and the homeless. But on a local basis residents and businesses want to see action against the same poor and the homeless. And it seems that when it comes to South Westminster, localism trumps Big Society.

In truth the legislation as it currently stands is probably unworkable - and certainly would end up being enforced in a partial and selective manner. There are some exemptions proposed in the legislation: so for example sporting events would be exempt, which will be a relief to marathon runners. And while it will be an offence to give people who are starving food, it will remain acceptable to give out promotional nibbles to encourage people to eat in local premises. Heaven's forbid local businesses should be further inconvenienced! But in the event of a Police kettling operation, they wouldn't be able to give out water to people. And as an aside, the right to peaceful protest would be curtailed by this legislation as lieing down - as a form of protest for example - would be illegal under this legislation. 

But beyond these legal concerns and the attitudes of Jeremy Swain and The Westminster Cathedral there is a bigger issue here - and that is the ongoing and accelerated cleansing of the poor and homeless from the streets of the Capital. A process that has included the introduction of ASBOs, the hosing down of rough sleepers and sleeping spots by Council street cleaners, the deliberate under-counting strategies endorsed by the Rough Sleepers Unit and now culminating in a proposal to make such the act of sleeping rough an offence.

The idea that this will be restricted to one area of Westminster seems naive. Should this piece of legislation be successful, then a rapid extension across Westminster is inevitable. And then, in the run up to the Olympics, seeing am extension to other London Boroughs as the City is cleansed for the marketing jamboree of the Olympics. Westminster proposes, Boris disposes and streets cleared of "huddled masses" for a tourist-friendly Olympics.

Consultation on the proposed legislation closes on the 25th March 2011.

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