Sunday, 27 February 2011

Westminster Council Proposes Banning Soup Runs for the Homeless

A homeless man beds down on Victoria Street, Westminster
Thank you very much to a reader who has alerted me to this profoundly disturbing news which appears on Ekklesia and the Daily Mail.

'Campaigners have expressed alarm at a proposal by Westminster Council to ban rough sleepers and the charities who care for them, from the streets around Victoria. Westminster Council has opened a four week consultation on a new byelaw which will fine people in the Victoria area if they “lie down or sleep in any public place”, “deposit bedding” and distribute free food and drink.
This byelaw will affect the 1,600 people estimated to sleep rough in Westminster each year, many of whom bed down in the Victoria area. Voluntary groups hand out food in the Victoria area, especially at Howick Place behind the House of Fraser. These groups will be facing the possibility of moving or being fined for their charity if the ban goes ahead.
Funny how the Councillors all have shelter...
Alison Gelder, Director of Housing Justice said: “While we completely understand the problems experienced by residents in this area, this byelaw, which is an attack on civil and religious freedoms, is a completely over the top response. It also cuts across the successful work that Housing Justice and others are doing to reduce both rough sleeping and the need for food distribution on the streets.
”The consultation period is running until 25 March. The London Soup Run Forum, convened by Housing Justice will be releasing further information when it becomes available. Westminster Council tried to ban soup runs across London in 2007, but following public outcry the proposal was not included in the London Bill.
Housing Justice is the national voice of Christian action in the field of housing and homelessness. They support night-shelters, drop-ins and hundreds of practical projects nationwide by providing advice and training for churches and other community groups who work with homeless people. They work by uniting Christians and churches of all denominations across the country to work for change. They embrace partnerships with people of all faiths (and none) who share their values of social justice and compassion.'
Westminster Cathedral piazza: Where the homeless are fed.
Westminster Cathedral is at the heart of this proposal and we can safely say that if anything is going to get Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols very angry, it will be this! In only days he will be storming out of Westminster Cathedral to Westminster City Hall just two minutes down the road, with his Mitre and Crozier, demanding, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the protection of the Church's Poor.

As our Tina said, Caritas in Veritate is something we can all agree on. Well, the bits about social justice anyway. Diocesan Justice and Peace Co-ordinator! This is your big moment! Round up the team and go tell the Council exactly what you make of them and their wicked plan!

Sleepless nights are what many homeless men and women experience daily. It can't be easy sleeping in a doorway where you're not sure if someone is going to piss on your, spit at you, offer you a cup of tea or set you on fire, especially in London. Sleepless nights are what the Councillors of Westminster should be having, but then again, there's no guarantee these Councillors listen to their consciences. We know that the Archbishop will be experiencing considerable anguish upon hearing this news, for he is called by Christ to be Shepherd to his flock and to be a Father to the Poor.

Interestingly, it just so happens that the Archbishop is giving a seminar at the London School of Economics 'Forum in Religion' public lecture on Wednesday 2 March 2011. What a marvelous opportunity this will be for him to condemn the action proposed by Westminster City Council, whose thinking on homelessness is so obviously informed by the cold-hearted economists of the London School of Economics (or the 'Libyan School of Economics' as one Telegraph blogger describes them). Archbishop Vincent Nichols will apparently 'be speaking about the importance of religious freedom, and arguing that promoting religious freedom increases our capacity to do good in the public square.' How apt! The public 'piazza' even!

It was in 2008 that the London School of Economics was commissioned by Westminster City Council and Crisis to publish detailed research into the 'effectiveness' of Soup Runs in Westminster, so this news should not totally surprise us. It is, to put it mildly, an audacious proposal for a Council that understandably does not really want to face up to the fact that Dickensian poverty still exists right outside their doorstep. It must be awful for these Councillors stepping out and nearly treading on a beggar. Cardinal Basil Hume, on the other hand, faced up to it and set up The Passage to help homeless men and women in London find their feet, which was a lot more than Westminster City Council's ever did for the homeless of the City. The Council's response appears to be somewhat more, well...Dickensian. Oh my! Even Stephen Fry will be upset about this! Even hardened atheists will be upset about this! Imagine, then, how furious the Archbishop is or will be, when he finds out! I would not like to be in the shoes of the man making this vicious assault upon the homeless and destitute.

Daniel Astaire
The 2008 study by the LSE is presumably what has led Daniel Astaire, Westminster City Council's cabinet minister for society, families and adult services to comment...

'Soup runs have no place in the 21st century and it is wrong and undignified that people are being fed on the streets. Handing out free food only serves to keep people on the streets for longer, damaging their health. There is no need for anyone to sleep rough in Westminster as we have a range of services that can help them off the streets to make the first steps towards getting their lives back on track.'

Hmm...Wouldn't that just sound so much more convicing if it were a quote from a rough sleeper! Who should we write to? I think Daniel Astaire might just be our man. The Archbishop, I doubt, needs our encouragement, but just in case he has not heard of this proposal...


Physiocrat said...

Big Society. Big Humbug.

A Reluctant Sinner said...

This has been in the pipe-line for some years now, and various central London churches have been actively opposed the Council's draconian measures against the homeless for a while. For well over a year, homeless rough sleepers have regularly been "hosed down" with pressure-washers if found outside at night! This happens most around the pizza outside Westminster Cathedral.

I'm sad to say that Protestant denominations have been far more active than the Catholic Church in supporting the rights of the homeless poor in London. There are two main Catholic charities in the central Westminster area that help the homeless: The Cardinal Hume Centre and The Passage. The latter provides cheap meals for rough sleepers, but does not go out on soup-runs, as far as I know; whilst the former - I believe - only deals with funded placements. Those who go and take food to the homeless, such as the young SVP group at Farm Street or the Salvation Army are the ones who will be criminalised by WCC's proposals. Some even suggest that the more established Catholic organisations rely on Council funding too much, and are therefore unable or unwilling to condemn WWC's anti-homeless policy.

Churches Together in Westminster - which is comprised of all the mainstream denominations in Westminster - has a Homelessness Task Force, which is supported by many Catholics. In fact, one of its main co-ordinators is a young Catholic man. Various churches around Mayfair and South Westminster have also banded together to form an emergency Winter Shelter for the homeless - which won't be reliant on the need to fill-in forms to secure local authority funding.

The relationship between the Cathedral and the Council over the piazza in front of Westminster Cathedral is a tricky one. The Council own the area, as far as I know, and can sometimes apply pressure on the Church to comply with its policies, etc. When St Therese's relics visited the Cathedral last year (or was it the year before?), WCC sometimes sent health and safety inspectors (who seemed overly zealous) to oversee the queues, etc. Also, it seems that Peter Tatchell and those who were against the Pope's visit were given permission to protest (taking over a large chunk of the piazza) on particularly holy days for the Church - such as Palm Sunday (when Catholics process around the pizza).

I'm ashamed to say that the one church that seems conspicuous by its silence over the harassment of homeless rough sleepers seems the one which is nearest the problem. But, there are practical reasons for that - I guess.

If Catholic J&P groups sometimes focussed on what's going on in their neighbourhoods - as opposed to some campaigns in Latin America, or whatever - then our Church might find its voice again when it comes to justice for those who are literally on our doorstep!

The situation for London's homeless rough sleepers is going to get worse, as the city prepares for the Olympics. Apparently, there is a policy to rid central London of any rough-sleepers before mid-Summer 2012!

Just one last comment... If you were to walk into any central London church during the daytime, you'd see that most - if not all - allow homeless people to sleep in the pews whilst the doors are open. Notre Dame de France often has nice music playing through-out the day, as well as the heating on, and there are normally between 10 - 20 rough-sleepers in there at any given time, all being left alone in peace to sleep whilst they can.

Kathy said...

Just come via Tina's link. What time is the public lecture please? I'm one of those pesky liberals but I enjoy your mini videos and appreciate all the effort you put into your site.
I'm sure other blogs would appreciate the information whatever their shade of Catholicism. Thanks.

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