Homelessness

After life: Death + bereavement on the streets

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“I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Woody Allen is not the only one of us to avoid facing up to death. Dying is something we rarely talk about – despite the fact that it will happen to us all one day. But some homeless charities are trying to change that. On 5 November, Housing Justice and The Connection at St Martin’s are due to hold their annual service of commemoration for homeless people who have died in the past year. The names of the deceased will be read out in the service at St Martin-in-the-Fields church on Trafalgar Square, alongside hymns, readings and songs. Around 150 names had already been submitted in October.

Read the full article: http://thepavement.org.uk/stories.php?story=1954

African arts, culture + politics · Homelessness

Far from home

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(ARISE magazine, issue 15) After a starring performance in acclaimed film The First Grader, Kenyan actor Oliver Litondo could have lent on Hollywood for his next role. Instead the 63-year-old former journalist chose a part in a short film about homelessness. The Truth About Stanley centres around the eccentric Congolese homeless man of the film’s title (played by Litondo), who forms an unlikely friendship with runaway Sam, regaling the 10 year old with fantastic tales. “What he lacks in material possessions, he makes up for with his vivid imagination and an insatiable desire to tell stories,” explains director and co-writer Lucy Tcherniak. “This storytelling serves as a coping mechanism, a crutch that allows him to deal with the harsh hand life has dealt him.” Produced in association with UK street newspaper The Big Issue and homeless hostel Anchor House, the film was shot over five days in London and premieres at London arts hub Rich Mix on April 2.

http://www.thetruthaboutstanley.blogspot.com

Homelessness

A rubbish way to die

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(The Pavement, 10 December 2011) Last month The Pavement ran its first advert warning of the dangers of sleeping in bins (pictured). But how widespread is this issue and what is being done to discourage it? We asked Biffa, one of the UK’s leading waste management companies, if this is something they’re aware of and, if so, do they have any records to indicate the scale of the problem?

“It is on our radar,” confirmed Shaun Davis, Biffa’s Group Director of Health & Safety and the Environment. “In terms of statistics we’re quite fortunate because in the last three years we’ve had one accident involving a person in a bin, which resulted in a guy injuring his leg.”

Sadly, over the years, The Pavement has learned of and reported on much more severe, and sometimes fatal, cases. Just last month, two homeless men who were sleeping in a bin in San Antonio, Texas, were accidentally dumped into a waste truck compacter. According to KSAT news, one of the pair, Richard Salinas, managed to escape and raise the alarm but it was too late for the other man trapped inside, who was crushed from the waist down and later died.

In a bid to avoid tragedies such as this, Biffa has implemented a series of “pre-lift” procedures, designed to make sure no one in sleeping inside a bin before it is lifted and tipped into the waste truck. As well as visually checking that no one is in the bin, the bin is rattled once the lifting forks are in position to give anyone inside another opportunity to make themselves known. The trucks are also fitted with cameras, which film the rubbish material as it is tipped into the truck and relay the images back to the cab, giving staff another opportunity to spot a body.

Similar procedures were recommended in People in Commercial Waste Containers, a guidance document issued by the Health and Safety Executive in June 2010. Although not a legal document, it is made clear that “if you adopt the practice and principles described, you should be taking sufficient action to discharge your legal duties, and secure compliance with the law.” Required actions include carrying out a risk assessment of “all of the significant risks relating to the storage and subsequent collection of commercial waste, including the possibility of people gaining entry into bins.”

As well as implemented on-theground procedures, Biffa is keen to make sure its employees are aware of the risks. “We’ve created a DVD called People in Bins, which we rolled across the entire organisation to educate people,” says Mr Davis. “Secondly, as we know we’re coming into that season now which is particularly wet and cold, we run refresher programmes – what we call Toolbox Talks – which are short briefing sessions on the risk of people in bins and the dangers associated… Obviously it’s a risk all year round and particularly a risk in winter when it’s cold and wet, so we’re particularly active at discouraging it then.”

Another step Biffa is currently taking is to introduce a “near miss” reporting programme. “We are looking at actually identifying how many people we think might have been in a bin prior to us lifting it,” explains Mr Davis. “And also when we actually do move it, if anybody is found to be in that bin, making sure that our people report that internally as a near miss because that’s a potential accident – it might have been stopped at that time but we still need to know why.” Under the new scheme, staff will be able to call the Biffa call centre to notify the safety team immediately.

Biffa, like other waste management companies, has also introduced lockable tops and warning stickers on bins, although how effective such stickers are is unclear. The bin slept in by the two men in San Antonio had warning stickers on, and warning stickers were introduced in Brighton long before the death of teacher Scott Williams, who was crushed in a rubbish lorry after falling asleep in an industrial bin. Following that accident, in July 2009, City Clean “upgraded” its warning stickers on large bins and worked with the council’s homeless team to put up posters in hostels and other buildings visited by rough sleepers to warn them of the danger of sleeping in bins.

While Mr Davis sounds a note of caution about raising the issue of sleeping in bins – “people may not have thought of bins being nice and warm and dry and cosy” – he believes educating people is vital, and shouldn’t stop with Biffa. “If you were to lobby the ESA [Environmental Services Authority] then they in turn might get behind a campaign like this and get a number of the other waste organisations behind this. It’s something that I’m particularly keen on promoting and if it came from both sides – from the industry and pressure groups or public groups such as yourself – it could be really worthwhile.”

http://www.thepavement.org.uk/story.php?story=1382

Homelessness

Unemployed pushed to back of housing queue

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(The Pavement, 8 November 2011) Unemployed people will be pushed down the housing register under a new proposal from London’s Westminster Council, introduced to “discourage a benefits culture.”

Under the council’s new housing allocation policy, which will come into force on 30 January 2012, applicants who have been working for more than two years will receive 50 extra ‘points’, moving them closer to gaining a council home.

To qualify, the applicant (be it an individual or the main applicant from a family) must have been working at least 16 hours per week under a written contract for at least two years. Applicants with temporary contracts, meanwhile, must have been employed continuously, with no more than one month’s gap between contracts.

Successful applicants will keep their bonus employment points until they have been re-housed or their application is closed. If they lose their job, the points will not be removed, as long as there is a “realistic prospect of re-employment.”

Those who have been looking for work for more than two years will also receive 50 extra points, as long as they have been “actively engaged” with the council’s Homeless Employment Learning Project, which aims to help those in temporary accommodation into work or further education.

According to Westminster Council’s cabinet member for housing and corporate property, Councillor Jonathan Glanz, “These changes ensure that not only do we prioritise the most vulnerable, including those living in overcrowded properties and those with medical needs, but we also reward those who are doing their best not to be dependent on the state by working or actively seeking work.”

The council is also hoping that the employed people they house will later move out of their council home into private accommodation, leaving their former property available for other people on the housing list.

The plans have met opposition and criticisms from a number of homeless groups and MPs. Alastair Murray, deputy director for Housing Justice, told the Evening Standard that many people would find it difficult to provide the required paperwork, adding: “Quite a lot of homeless people do work but the kind of work they are able to do is quite unstable, so they may not be eligible.”

For Kay Boycott, Shelter’s director of campaigns, policy and communications, the real issue is not the allocation of social housing but the amount of it: “Britain’s desperate shortage of social housing makes decisions around how to allocate it incredibly difficult. What we really need is to build more truly affordable homes for families across the country so we do not find ourselves in this difficult position of having to judge who is most worthy of this scarce resource.”

Earlier this year, Councillor Guthrie McKie, Labour’s Housing spokesperson, described the proposal as “very unfair and extremely divisive.” However, Councillor McKie may find scant support higher up in her own party. At the annual Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband declared: “When we have a housing shortage, choices have to be made. Do we treat the person who contributes to their community the same as the person who doesn’t? My answer is ‘no’. Our first duty should be to help the person who shows responsibility.”

Additional priority will also be given to applicants who have lived in Westminster continuously for 10 years. While priority is already given to applicants with young children, who are homeless or have special medical needs.

Westminster’s plans are just one example of a wider trend, which is seeing unemployed social housing applicants penalised across the country.

Similar policies have already been introduced or proposed in Manchester, Wandsworth and Newham. While in its recent Housing Allocations Consultation, Hammersmith & Fulham stated: “The council is proposing to provide a fixed number of new lettings each year for people who have taken part in specific council-supported programmes to get back into training or employment.”

On a national scale, the minister for housing, Grant Shapps, has pledged to give local authorities the freedom to draw up their own social housing priorities list. In an article for Inside Housing, Shapps wrote: “I believe that many councils will use their new powers to reward and acknowledge those actively working and contributing to their local area, as Westminster and others have done. And rightly so.”

Shapps insisted that “we will retain the ╘reasonable preference’ criteria, establishing proper priority for those in greatest need”, however the vulnerable are not immune from the shifts in policy. Under the new Localism Bill, homeless applicants would be forced to accept offers of “suitable private accommodation” – or face a penalty. This shift, it is explained in the Department for Communities and Local Government’s (CLG) Localism Bill Impact Assessment will allow local authorities to “discharge the duty they owe to homeless households.”

If passed, the law would also allow local authorities to operate closed waiting lists, removing the right for anyone (without restriction) to apply for social housing. According to the CLG’s impact assessment, “Under this option, the rules determining which categories of applicants qualify to be considered for social housing would be decided at the local level,” although “the rules determining which applicants receive priority for social housing would continue to be set centrally via the statutory ╘reasonable preference’ categories.”

Shelter issued a briefing for the second reading of the bill, in which it expressed concern over the “undermining” of the legal duty to homeless people: “The proposed changes sever the link between homelessness and recognising the need for a settled home by allowing councils to discharge homeless households into the insecure PRS [Private Rented Sector] rather than find them a settled homeâ•” there is a distinct lack of good quality housing at the bottom end of the PRS market meaning that many of the most vulnerable households will be placed in unsuitable accommodation.”

Another proposal Shelter has requested to be removed from the bill is the removing of tenancy lease security, which would allow councils to reassess tenants after a minimum of two years and evict them if they no longer met the criteria, in terms of for example income and benefits.

The Localism Bill is to have its third reading in the House of Lords on 31 October.

Homelessness

Homeless people victims of slave trade

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(The Pavement, 6 October 2011) Following the rescue of 24 “slaves” from a traveller’s site in Bedfordshire, it has emerged homeless people are being abused as slave labour.

The dramatic police raid at the site has received huge national and international coverage, as details of the conditions in which the men were held emerge. Detective Chief Inspector Sean O’Neil, from the Bedforshire and Hertfordshire Major Crime Unit, said: “The men we found at the site were in a poor state of physical health and the conditions they were living in were shockingly filthy and cramped. We believe that some of them had been living and working there in a state of virtual slavery, some for just a few weeks and other for up to 15 years.”

Although Bedfordshire Police were unable to confirm this to The Pavement, the Guardian has reported that those found were “all vulnerable men who had been recruited from homeless shelters and dole queues”. They ranged from 17 to 30 and include ten British men, three Polish men, two Romanian men, a Latvian man and a Lithuanian man. Of the 24, nine chose not to assist the police and left the medical reception centre where they were initially taken. The police have been working with the UK Human Trafficking Centre on the operation, which is according to a report in the Times is suspected to be part of a wider slavery chain holding up to 100 captives. Although in a statement from Bedfordshire Police, Detective Chief Inspector O’Neil said: “I am confident that while the investigation is in its early stages this is a family run ‘business’ and is an organised crime group that has been broken up by the Netwing operation.”

Following the raid at Greenacre caravan site in Leighton Buzzard, four men and one woman were arrested using new legislation under the Slavery and Servitude Act 2010. The men – James Connor, 23, Tommy Connor, 26, Patrick Connor, 19 and James Connor, 33 – appeared at Luton Magistrates Court and have been remanded in custody to appear at Luton Crown Court on the provisional date of 5 December 2011. The fifth defendant, Josie Connors, 30, was charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit offences of holding people in servitude, plus two counts of requiring people to perform forced labour, appeared in court on 22 September.

For many homeless charities, although the accusations are appalling, they are not a surprise. Thames Reach spokesman Mike Nicholas said, “We’ve been concerned for a number of months now that unscrupulous gangs are targeting homeless people. We’ve been made aware of cases where people from these gangs have approached people where homeless people gather, like soup runs or day centres.”

In total, Thames Reach has been approached by 22 people who’ve run away from the gangs, and received reports from London, Birmingham, Manchester, Southampton, Dover and Luton. “Many were trafficked across from Central and Eastern Europe with offers of jobs and accommodation,” explains Mr Nicholas, “and then when they got here these jobs failed to materialise and often people were subject to physical assault, maybe had to take credit cards or bank accounts out in their names, or were forced to work in factories. We were aware of people being shipped every day from a property in the Midlands to a bakery in Luton.”

In response, Thames Reach put out a warning to other homeless organisations and projects last March. In terms of helping the victims themselves, Mr Nicholas outlined a few possible avenues: “We could help put them in touch with the police if they had been victims of these gangs… Some of them are very fearful and don’t want to talk about their experiences and they’re worried about repercussions and so we’ve been helping some of those people go home. Other people are currently here in safe houses and there are police investigations taking place.”

For Jad Adams, Chair of Croydon Nightwatch, the practice goes back much further: “Around three years ago we were getting a number of people who were coming to our soup run in Central Croydon and trying to recruit people. We challenged them and asked what they were doing and they were evasive. One of our team also followed them and took the numbers of their vehicles.”

Croydon Council also stepped in to help, collating the information to pass to the police, while the soup run’s volunteers began issuing leaflets in English and Polish. “Even if the clients themselves aren’t particularly concerned,” said Mr Adams, “the gang leaders are savvy and they know that we’re on to them.” Since then the Croydon Nightwatch hasn’t seen any more such recruiters.

So what was the advice in their leaflet? “It was to be aware,” explained Mr Adams, “but also to know exactly what the work is, what the rates of pay are and where you are going to be working. And never give away your passport or identity documents.”

This need for awareness has been echoed by many, including Mike McCall, St Mungo’s Executive Director of Operations, who said: “These reports are very concerning. Rough sleepers are some of society’s most vulnerable people. We need to be ever watchful that they aren’t being exploited.”

http://www.thepavement.org.uk/story.php?story=1346

Homelessness

The future of soup

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(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.”

http://www.thepavement.org.uk/story.php?story=1324

Homelessness

The Westminster ban

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(The Pavement, 12 May 2011) Westminster City Council’s proposed byelaw banning soup runs and rough sleeping is looking increasingly shaky as opposition grows, deadlines are delayed and Conservative councillors come out against the plans.

Reported as the policy of a “callous” and “heartless” Tory council (Daily Mail and Mirror, respectively), it seemed the byelaw was unanimously backed by the Conservative councillors who hold the majority in Westminster City Council. However, this does not entirely seem to be the case.

The Pavement emailed all of Westminster’s 48 Conservative councillors to ask whether they support the byelaw, oppose the byelaw or have not made up their mind. Three responded: Councillor Philippa Roe replied “this is not my portfolio” and suggested speaking to Daniel Astaire; Councillor Michael said “I strongly support the byelaw”; while Councillor Glenys Roberts, a Daily Mail journalist, stated “I oppose the byelaw, I think this has to be handled more sensitively.”

And it seems that Cllr Roberts is not alone, with reports that a Conservative councillor had voiced his opposition to the byelaw on a visit to a soup run. The Pavement also spoke to Labour Councillor Adam Hug, who said: “What’s not clear to us is precisely what the mood on the Conservative backbenches is. I think there will be a lot of concern… There are lots of people who have generally held concerns about the issue, and I think probably you’ll have to speak to some of them to find out what exactly is going on behind closed doors.”

The Conservatives have an even more high-profile dissenter to add to their list, too, namely the Mayor of London. Under persistent questioning from Liberal Democrat Member of the Greater London Assembly Mike Tuffrey, Boris Johnson finally clarified his position at Mayor’s Question Time on 23 March, saying: “I do not want to ban soup runs, provided they are part of a strategy to help people off the street”.

The 12 Labour councillors at Westminster City Council, meanwhile, have already come out in joint opposition, releasing a statement which says: “Labour Councillors have condemned this hard-hearted and mean-minded action at a time of rising unemployment and increasing homelessness amongst the most vulnerable.”

More protests and direct action

Inspired by the multi-organisation flashmob demonstrations and the protest picnic held outside Westminster Cathedral on 20 March, campaigners have continued to take to the streets.

On 2 April, another horizontal flashmob, Everybody Lie Down In Westminster Day, took place on Westminster Cathedral Piazza; while on 14 April, campaigners gathered outside Westminster City Hall to take part in the Protest Against Benefits Cuts & Mass Food Give Away! Plans are also underway for events on the day of the council meeting and, possibly, to coincide with the Royal Wedding (tentatively entitled ‘Let Them Eat Cake’).

Online, meanwhile, Henrietta Still and Co from Goldsmiths College have produced a short film entitled the Big Soup Society (on Facebook), while Pavement photographer Rufus Exton’s film (youtube.com/user/pavementtv) documenting the 20 March protest has received more than 1,000 hits. Over on Twitter, the hashtag #homelessban is focusing support, while anti-byelaw Facebook groups and pages continue to attract fans.

Housing Justice is also still calling on Westminster residents to lobby their local councillors, and asking anyone doing a soup run to sign up to their newly updated Soup Run Code of Conduct.

Finding alternatives

As well as the Soup Run Code of Conduct, other practical alternatives to the byelaw are being put forward.

On the Labour Matters website (labourmatters.com), Labour councillors have outlined a three-point plan, which they say would enable soup runs to continue. Suggestions include a system of licensing/registration and regulation; Council-supported efforts to provide daily building-based alternatives; and a code of conduct.

Alastair Murray, deputy director of Housing Justice, has called on the council to make use of the knowledge and experience of soup run volunteers, and widen building-based provision, saying: “More hostels in Westminster could be opening up space in the evening, and they could be more supportive of the idea of indoor drop-in services open in the evening and at the weekend.

“If we can work out a timetable of doing that and really encourage soup runs to look at moving somewhere indoors in their local area or Westminster, then I think it would be very difficult for Westminster to say ‘well, we’re going to ban soup runs anyway’. Because we have to show some kind of willing and make an effort to do it together and improve services, and that has to be the way forward.” Westminster City Council has even showed signs of softening their approach, increasingly referring to a preference for a non-legislative approach and proposing in a press release dated 29 March to “meet with interested parties in the coming weeks to try and reach a solution before resorting to formal legal action”.

Rough sleeping ban proposal could be dropped

As it stands, the byelaw would criminalise rough sleepers and those distributing free refreshments in a designated area around Westminster Cathedral. However, there are suggestions that the council could be planning to remove the clause relating to lying down, sleeping or depositing bedding on the street.

Mr Murray reported: “They are saying… that they would be willing to meet and explore a non-legislative solution, but they seem to me to be fairly sure to be going ahead – at least with the anti-soup run bit. I think they’re going to drop the proposal to ban rough sleeping.

“I’ve heard this from a couple of different sources, but I think they’ve realised they’ve they have got no support whatsoever for that from any organisation… they don’t have support, from anybody in the field, so it looks as if they’re on pretty dodgy ground with that.”

Cllr Hug echoed this, saying: “My impression is that they may be more willing to move on rough sleeping because of the overwhelming opposition, . I mean obviously there clearly has been majority opposition to the soup run ban, but it’s [the rough sleeping ban] is not quite clear cut.”

Delays and doubts on the final decision

Westminster City Council is currently compiling some 500 responses that it received during the consultation, which ended on 25 March. A summary of the consultation will be made public in due course, although when is not yet known.

After the consultation document has been prepared, it will be up to Westminster City Council to decide whether or not to push ahead with the byelaw. And if it does, there’s little chance of it being taken down by Labour, predicts Cllr Hug: “My understanding is that it will go to full council. Although if I’m absolutely honest, if it goes to full council… , it will go through irrespective of what I say or what my colleagues say … Certainly, in my time (and I’ve only been on the council for a year ), I’ve never seen a vote.”

The decisive council meeting was expected to take place on 4 May. However, this now seems to have now been delayed. Mr Murray wrote to Councillor Daniel Astaire, cabinet member for society, families and adult services, offering to meet to help find a non-legislative solution. In response, said Mr Murray, “he [Cllr Astaire] told me they aren’t going to be voting on it on the 4th of May [but] it’s not going to be included in the council meeting then, and that he would be keen to meet.”

The Pavement contacted the Westminster City Council press office for confirmation, but on asking when the decision would be made the spokesperson replied: “Are you talking about… I saw something on Twitter from Housing Justice. Is that what you’re referring to?” and She said she didn’t believe there was a council meeting on 4 May (there is), and that no further details are yet available.

Looking back to a Westminster City Council press release from 28 February, however, the process is clearer: “Depending on the results [of the consultation, the council] will then to seek provisional permission from the Department for Communities and Local Government [DCLG] to pass a byelaw before taking it to a meeting of the full council in the summer.

“If approved, the byelaw could be in place by October. Vulnerable individuals will not be enforced against, and all individuals will be asked to leave the area before being subjected to any enforcement.” The next meeting of the full council after 4 May is on 20 July at Council House, Marylebone Road. The Public Law Project (PLP), a legal charity concerned with access to justice for disadvantaged groups, is advising campaigners on the possibility of legal challenge to the passing of the byelaw. PLP solicitor Jo Hickman confirmed that PLP had concerns as to the lawfulness of Westminster’s proposals and would be pleased to offer campaigners legal support.

Ms Hickman told The Pavement, “This unprecedented proposal seeks to criminalise acts of charity. If that were not bad enough, the proposed byelaw is so widely drafted it also criminalises a host of other entirely innocent activities. Councils are not lawfully empowered to pass byelaws that are oppressive, and as such we consider there may be grounds to seek judicial review of any decision to implement this proposal.”

We asked DCLG for their stand on the byelaw, but was just sent their previously released statement: “Local homeless charities and Westminster Council believe that food handouts actually encourage people to sleep rough in central London, with all the dangers that entails.

“There is no need for anyone to sleep rough in Westminster as there are a range of services that can help the vulnerable off the streets, and assist them make the first steps towards getting their lives back on track.”

Asked about the process for passing the byelaw, the spokesman replied, “If the byelaw were to be passed by the council, it would require DCLG Secretary of State’s confirmation before it could take effect. But we are still some way off that stage, if things ever get there.”

UPDATE 12/5/11: We have just received news that Westminster City Council has decided to drop its attempt to criminalise rough sleeping via its proposed byelaw. It has not given up on getting rid of soup runs, so we will continue to cover the story as it develops.