(The Pavement, 16 September 2011) It’s been branded illegal by human rights group Liberty, but Westminster City Council’s proposed byelaw banning soup runs around Westminster Cathedral Piazza has still not been withdrawn.
Soup run representatives agreed to move out of the area to avoid the ban, but despite this the council has not ruled out enforcing the byelaw.
Furthermore, having moved away from Westminster Cathedral Piazza, soup runs are facing fresh complaints from local residents and businesses in their new locations.
Liberty highlighted the illegality of the byelaw with a high-profile stunt, in which it delivered letters to Westminster City councillors, urging them to rethink, in a giant can labelled ‘Cream of Conscience Soup.’
In its letter, Liberty said the plans were unlawful on a number of human rights and common law grounds. It also quoted lawyers from London chambers 11KBW as describing the proposed byelaw as “over-broad and draconian, criminalising lawful and benign conduct which… is entirely unconnected with any legitimate aim which Westminster claims to pursue.”
The lawyers, it is reported, go on to ask: “Is it genuinely the case that a mother who gives her child milk while travelling home [..] is to be criminalised? That a diabetic cannot be given a piece of chocolate? Or that two students sharing a soft drink [..] should be subject to arrest and criminal fine?”
The human rights group also drew attention to fellow organisations against the campaign, including Housing Justice, Church Action on Poverty and the British Medical Association. While in a further letter to Alastair Reeves from Westminster City Council, Liberty’s policy officer Sophie Farthing declared the human rights group would “consider seeking redress in the courts” if the byelaw was passed.
Soup run organisers operating around the Westminster Cathedral Piazza were made aware of the decision to move out of the area through the recent Cathedral Soup Month awareness campaign and on-the-ground promotion by Housing Justice, The Passage and other groups and individuals.
In response, as The Pavement’s listings demonstrate, a number of soup runs have relocated and others, , including Harlow Chocolate Run and Winchmore Hill Quakers, are taking a break until further notice, The Pavement has been advised.
Coptic City Mission, Missionaries of Charity and Street Souls all moved to Brewers Green, while Sacred Heart relocated to Tothill Street. However, some groups have had to uproot once again after residents, owners and staff of luxury flats on Brewers Green issued complaints. Housing Justice has also been contacted by concerned residents around Tothill Street.
“The council didn’t inform residents who live around Tothill Street that the soup runs were going to move there, which residents were quite upset about,” explains Housing Justice Soup Run Forum Support Worker Ellie Schling. “They’d had problems with people sleeping in their doorways, so they were worried that the soup runs being on Tothill Street would increase that and they wondered why the council didn’t talk to them about it.” So far there have been no specific complaints about increased rough sleeping in the area.
All the upheaval has also provoked confusion around where the soup runs are taking place, as readers in the Victoria area will no doubt have found. “People are frustrated,” continues Ms Schling. “They feel like it’s almost as bad as the ban, having to move every two weeks. I think people in Victoria are missing out on food, there’s less food available, there’s a lot of confusion but hopefully it will settle down.”
Chief Executive of Street Souls David Coombe has also noticed frustration and confusion among soup run users. Street Souls recently moved to Brewers Green – away from its previous site on Ashley Place, adjacent to Westminster Cathedral – but was forced to leave away just one week following reports of complaints from residents. Street Souls’ soup run now operates from Christchurch Gardens, a non-residential spot, surrounded by offices. The first run in the new location proved a success, says Mr Coombe: “The problem was getting the word around. But we had quite a big team come out and what we did on the way up was drive around where we used to distribute food… We found probably 30 people on Brewers Green, about 10 at our old place – Ashley Gardens, and around 20 in Tothill Street.” Street Souls plan to continue their twice-monthly distributions at Christchurch Gardens – unless a better offer comes up. “If an indoor service became available in Central Victoria we’d certainly favourably consider it,” says Mr Coombe, “but we will not move out of the Central Victoria area. We’re being pressured to do that – even by The Passage – but we’re not going to do it.”
Until a new routine is established, the advice is to keep an eye on the Housing Justice website and The List. Westminster City Council’s aim is to engage people with “building-based services”; however, turning outdoor soup runs into indoor soup kitchens is not so simple. The problem is not lack of interest, as demonstrated by a recent questionnaire carried out by Miranda Keast, from The Passage, Ms Schling and Christian Morgenstern, from Imperial College Community Action Group (CAG). The survey found that 64 per cent of respondents would prefer indoor services if available, 28 per cent did not mind and eight per cent preferred outdoor services, some because it meant they could bring their pet. The real problem is lack of provision.
Although Westminster City Council frequently cites its three build-based services – The Passage, St Mungo’s and Connection at St Martin’s – these don’t constitute a suitable or even potential space for soup runs to move into. The only option at present seems to be King George’s, an already small space where several runs have now relocated. With no assistance from Westminster City Council on finding suitable indoor venues, Housing Justice has taken on the task of calling churches and hostels in a bid to find more space. “The council hasn’t helped at all, hasn’t come up with anywhere for us to go, which is a problem,” said Ms Schling. “We could really, really use more indoor places.” Westminster Council is however still meeting with the small group of soup run representatives, made up of residents groups, hostel representatives, police, members of the Soup Run Forum and Westminster Council’s manager of Rough Sleeping and Street Activity Janet Haddington. The meetings are chaired by Thames Reach Chief Executive Jeremy Swain, who has recently been out visiting soup runs in Victoria. “I have seen two soup runs in action myself tonight,” he reported recently on his blog, “and I’m told by those who have gathered that another two are expected… The sheer drama of the scene and its compelling actors is seductive. But this is the summer of 2011 and I have witnessed the mass feeding of the poor on the streets of central London. There has to be a better way. ” How long the multi-party meetings will continue for is unclear, although a spokesman for Westminster City Council said that the group is to report back in another couple of weeks and suggested the council may be able to say about the situation then.
Ms Schling from Housing Justice believes that although there are still reasons for them not to pass the byelaw, the council don’t want to withdraw the threat of the byelaw because that means it can still be held over their heads. Also, she adds, “I don’t think the residents of the Cathedral area are satisfied because there are still homeless people sleeping in the Cathedral Piazza and hanging around McDonalds.”
Cllr Daniel Astaire, Westminster Council’s cabinet member for Adult Services and Health, gave The Pavement his update of the situation: “There have been productive discussions between providers, the council, charities, residents and other interest groups, chaired by Thames Reach, to find the best way to address the over provision of soup runs in this particular area of Westminster.
“Indoor provision of food is one way to help rough sleepers and great strides have been made towards increasing such this provision, with a number of organisations already making space available. We would also urge voluntary groups and local authorities across London and the UK to work together to tackle rough sleeping. In some cases we know that people have been told to travel into Victoria from outside London to wait for food. This is not a dignified way to treat people, especially when their best hope of finding somewhere to live lies in their local connections.
“The byelaw remains a last resort, we would much rather find other solutions. And whilst taking provision indoors, where people can also access other forms of help, is a positive step forward it is by no means the complete solution to tackling the difficulties faced by vulnerable people and rough sleepers. We are encouraged by the work done to date, but are under no illusions that more still needs to be done.”
Meanwhile Camden Council has shown signs of joining neighbouring Westminster Council’s drive to bring soup runs under local authority control. In a letter to Mr Morgenstern, Camden Council’s Community Presence Manager Guy Arnold highlights “ongoing community safety concerns with regard to the provision of free food in public spaces, including Lincoln’s Inn Field” – despite, as pointed out in Mr Morgenstern’s reply, the CAG soup run taking place in a non-residential area within Westminster.
As well as muting the idea of CAG moving into a building, Mr Arnold offers a deal: “If, for example you were to consider ceasing to provide actual soup runs and instead offering homeless people practical help in different ways then I would be able to assist in bringing about this change… There are for example many useful voluntary roles including providing escorts to assist those who decide rebuild their lives in their home area and I believe that your organisation could make a valuable contribution to this work.”