London culture

The Black Album (review)

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(Visit London, 26 July 2009) It’s not often that you find religious radicalism, comedy and the artist formerly known as Prince in the same sentence – let alone the same play. But award-winning author Hanif Kureishi has managed it in The Black Album.

The new production is Kureishi’s stage adaptation of his own novel, also called The Black Album, which takes its name from Prince’s unreleased but widely bootlegged album of 1987.

The music theme continues with a energetic soundtrack from Sister Bliss from Faithless. Who better to do the music for a play about religion than a member of the group who once sang God Is A DJ? The mix of 80s classics had me tapping my feet as soon as I entered the National Theatre.

The scene is set 20 years ago in 1989 – the year that a fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie for his controversial book The Satanic Verses.  The play explorers the religious tensions of the era, the repercussions of which are still felt today, through Shahid Hasan (played with energy by Jonathan Bonnici), a young Asian boy leaving leafy Sevenoaks to study in the bright lights of London.

The Black Album deals with some pretty heavy issues: religious fanatism, drugs, racial identity, sex and violence, yet at times it felt more like a comedy sitcom. Family dramas were peppered with comic insights into Pakistani domestic life, Shahid’s brother Chili (Robert Mountford) was like a flamboyant Boycie from Only Fools And Horses, and there was even a starring role from an aubergine pakora!

Like the multi-named, cross-dressing Prince, the characters each juggle different identities. Watching the play, the hardest part was not deciding who to believe, but trying to figure out what they believed.

I’m off to the upcoming talk on 10 August with Hanif Kurieshi and the play’s director Jatinder Verma in search of enlightenment!

http://blog.visitlondon.com/2009/07/the-black-album-at-the-national-theatre/

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London culture

Walking In My Mind (review)

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Yayoi Kusuma, Dots Obsession 2004, © Yayoi Kusama 2009, Photo: Yayoi Kusama Studio

 

(Visit London, 22 June 2009). The Hayward Gallery has gone all John Malkovich on us with their surreal, new exhibition Walking In My Mind. Through a series of giant works and sculptures, ten artists invite us to enter their imaginations.

The exhibition begins before you even step foot inside the Hayward. Along the sunny Southbank, 24 trees have been wrapped in red spotted fabric. It’s the brainwave of iconic Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama – a life-long dot-obsessive, according to a recent interview in The Guardian.

Of course, all art is about stepping into the artist’s imagination, but in Walking In My Mind it is a much more physical, adventurous experience. It was also darker, funnier and more bizarre than I expected.

Scottish-born artist Charles Avery had me chuckling out loud with his inventive project The Islanders. As well as sketches of life on his imaginary island, Avery displays his ’souvenirs’, including Stone-mice (part rodent, part mineral), which look suspiciously like normal stones, and a Bejewelled Hare – stuffed and brandishing its bling like a hip-hop superstar.

Thomas Hirschhorn’s Cavemanman was even more surreal. His uneven maze of tiny caves and tunnels, made of cardboard and plastered in brown parcel tape, was like something out of a postman’s nightmare.

But there was a darker side to the exhibition too. Walking through Chiharu Shoita’s After The Dream was quite unsettling. The painstakingly woven web of wool – Shoita told me it took a week to complete – felt like a swarm of bats that could get caught in your hair any second.

Yayoi Kusama’s new work, Dots Obsession, has become the ’face’ of the exhibition so I was eager to see this. For me, the red spotted shapes worked best on the Southbank and on the bright, green Astroturf of the Hayward’s sculpture terrace, where they looked vibrant and delightfully out of place.

One of the curators Mami Kataoka pointed out that while a doctor can visually see the brain, the mind itself has no boundaries – there is no shape. This sense of freedom in self-expression has produced an exhibition that really does blow your mind.

Inspired by the exhibition and want to discuss your views? Head along to the Hayward’s free workshop Talking In My Mind on 5 July.

http://blog.visitlondon.com/2009/06/walking-in-my-mind-at-hayward-gallery/

Homelessness

The Mayor’s year

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(The Pavement, 11 June 2009) This month marks the one-year anniversary of Boris Johnson’s time as Mayor of London. So what has he achieved? We look at what the Mayor has done to improve housing in London – and if he’s followed through on his key election promises.

AFFORDABLE HOMES PLEDGE:Work with the boroughs to build 50,000 more affordable homes by 2011 Action: Mr Johnson has gone back on his election pledge, changing 50,000 new homes to 50,000 more affordable homes. Empty homes that have been brought back into use, for example, could now be counted. Even the 50,000 target is looking shaky, with the Evening Standard reporting that Mr Johnson has admitted the recession could make the goal difficult to meet. Mr Johnson has also scrapped the obligation on local councils to guarantee that at least 50 per cent of their new housing will be affordable. Instead, individual targets are being decided with each borough.
RESPONSE: Adam Sampson, outgoing chief executive of Shelter, said in the Guardian (20th January 2009): “The inevitable result of this will be that boroughs will proceed to play pass the parcel with affordable housing supply, each arguing that while they support the overall target, they themselves should be exempt from it”.

SOCIAL HOUSING ACTION:Mr Johnson has shifted resources from social housing to ‘intermediate’ housing (eg, home ownership schemes). Previously the allocation was 70:30 in favour of social housing; now it is 60:40. RESPONSE: Jenny Jones, Green Party Assembly Member (20th November 2008): “By shifting the focus away from social rented housing and onto homes for middle income earners, the Mayor is cutting support for those in greatest need”.

EMPTY HOMES PLEDGE: Invest ¬£60m from the Regional Housing Pot to start renovating the capital’s 84,205 empty properties to help lowincome Londoners off waiting lists.
ACTION: The Draft Housing Strategy has allocated £60m of the Targeted Funding Stream to bring empty homes back into use. It pledges that no more than one per cent of homes should stand empty and unused for over six months and there should be no financial incentives to leaving homes empty. An audit of derelict abandoned homes will also be undertaken.

GETTING ON THE PROPERTY LADDER
PLEDGE 1: Release GLA-owned land and ¬£130m from the Regional Housing Pot to launch a new ‘First Steps Housing Scheme’, which will be open to first-time buyers frozen out of Government schemes.
PLEDGE 2: Increase shared ownership schemes for low-income families by a third.
ACTION: The Draft Housing strategy outlines plans to increase opportunities for low-cost home ownership by a third. As promised, ¬£130m will be earmarked to start the First Steps housing programme. Controversially the maximum household income of those eligible for discounted and low cost homes has been raised to ¬£72,000. RESPONSE: Rob Williams in the Guardian (22nd November 2008): “Quite frankly, if housing is so expensive that an income of ¬£72,000 cannot get someone on the “property ladder” then it is clear that prices must come down to earth.”

SPACE AND OVERCROWDING
PLEDGE: Work with local councils to deliver more family-sized homes.
ACTION: The Draft Housing Strategy aims that 42 per cent of social rented and 16 per cent of intermediate homes should have three bedrooms or more. The increase in overcrowding in the social rented sector should cease by 2012, the paper adds.

SECURITY AND PROTECTION FOR PRIVATE TENANTS
PLEDGE 1: Protect private tenants from unscrupulous landlords by publishing an online ‘Fair Rents Guide’. PLEDGE 2: Explore the possibility of a tenant deposit scheme with a guaranteed arbitration period of one month. ACTION: The Draft Housing Strategy outlines plans to set up the London Rents Map, a web-based guide giving details of rent sin the capital, and to raise awareness among tenants and landlords or Tenancy Deposit Schemes. However, no new tenancy deposit schemes are mentioned other than those that have been mandatory since April 2007 for all new and renewed tenancies with rents of up to ¬£25,000 a year. We will be interviewing Boris Johnson in a forthcoming issue.

http://www.thepavement.org.uk/story.php?story=740

Homelessness

Care or custody

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(The Pavement, 22 May 2009) The campaign to move rough sleepers out of the City of London, reported in last month’s Pavement, shows no sign of letting up. Some rough sleepers have been arrested, a church group has staged a street protest, and readers continue to report nighttime wake-up calls, wetting of sleeping areas by street cleaners and requests to ‘move on’. The story has received high-profile interest from BBC London News and BBC Radio Five Live, as well as other publications, who reported the accounts of a number of rough sleepers as well as the response from Howard Sinclair, the chief executive of Broadway, the charity contracted by the Corporation of London to deliver homeless outreach services within the Square Mile. In the BBC News report, Mr Sinclair said it was not a campaign to harass rough sleepers. “Police are more actively checking on people’s welfare throughout the night,” he said. “There are community issues around what they [rough sleepers] bring in terms of some urination and some belongings that they have.”

Anger and arrests

This response and continuing reports that police and street cleaners are disturbing rough sleepers in the City have angered readers (see letters) and homeless and housing groups, many of whom are concerned by the legal direction the campaign seems to be taking, following the arrest of a reader for refusing to comply with the ‘move on’ policy. On 30th May at 2.30am, police carrying out a ‘welfare check’ on Booth Lane in the City of London woke Peter Pickles, 57, and asked him to move. It was the second time he had been roused that night, and he refused. He was arrested for “obstructing/resisting a constable in execution of duty” and held for, he estimates, three or four hours before being bailed. Mr Pickles, whose 70-mile charity walk in aid of the Spitalfields Crypt Trust (reported in issue 30 of The Pavement) raised around ¬£400, appeared at the City of London Magistrates Court on 6th June. He was represented by a duty solicitor who had earlier entered the waiting room to ask if anyone needed representation. The magistrate said the incident was “out of Mr Pickles’ character” and gave him a six months’ conditional discharge with no costs, meaning that no further action will be taken against Mr Pickles, unless he commits another offence within the next six months. The magistrate also took into account that Mr Pickles was violently assaulted last year (reported in issue 20 of The Pavement). The frequent move-ons have lead to flashbacks of the attack, even though Mr Pickles says, “I find it less stressful out here [on the streets] than in a hostel”. Despite everything, Mr Pickles does not blame the police: “In a sense, I feel sorry for the police, given an order they don’t want to do.” Like many of our readers, Mr Pickles is used to receiving the pink ‘stop/search’ slips from police carrying out ‘welfare checks’. On one such slip handed out just last month, the ‘outcome’ is recorded as “moved on as per force policy Corp of London”. However, Sergeant O’Connor, of Snow Hill police station, told The Pavement that Operation Poncho will continue until further notice, and that the police are involved in “carrying out the welfare checks, checking how everybody is and facilitating cleansers carrying out their work”, the latter aspect, she said, since April or May this year. The Pavement asked Mr Sinclair, of Broadway, about the arrest of Mr Pickles. He was not aware of the case. “It wouldn’t be right for me to comment on individual cases,” he added. “It’s not something that we’re involved in or have been involved in.” Mr Pickles is not the only rough sleeper in the City who has recently had an unexpected brush with the law during this operation. A number of readers spoke about their experiences of being ‘moved on’ to The Pavement and BBC Radio 5 Live. We have since heard that less than a fortnight after speaking out, two of the six men were arrested for suspected immigration problems, despite the police having stopped them for ‘welfare checks’ numerous times before. They were released without charge. Although the Data Protection Act means that the police are unable to confirm the names of individuals who have been arrested and not charged, or comment on their cases, the City of London press bureau confirmed that on 6th June a homeless man was arrested on suspicion of overstaying his visa, and on 8th June another was arrested on suspicion of the same offence. Unfortunately, other than the coincidence of the timing of their arrest, there is no way for us to link this directly to the operation in the City.

Church protest

Meanwhile, in a protest against the campaign, a group from the Bloomsbury Baptist Church, staged a street ‘sleepover’ to show their support and see the cleaning tactics first-hand. Nine members of the Shaftesbury Avenue-based church gathered on Wednesday 18th June on Fleet Street, with eight sleeping out all night. Revd Dr Simon Perry told The Pavement it had been a “revealing” experience: “At 2.15am the police woke us all up and did the thing that the homeless people say has been happening all along, and that is ‘wetting’.” The policewoman told the church group that the place they were sleeping needed cleaning because “homeless people urinate and defecate” and it was “a bit smelly”. Tim Jones, a deacon of the church, asked the policewoman how many hostel places were available and was told “none tonight”. The group hadn’t expected that they would witness wetting (pictured). “I honestly thought it would be political suicide for them to do it while we were there,” said Revd Perry, “because we represent a community that has a great deal of weight behind us politically.” He added: “We will use every resource at our disposal; but in the first instance, this will be an attempt to stop the present campaign, within the context of working in harmony with Broadway.” The protest was a real eye-opener for Revd Perry: “I’ve been there, I’ve experienced it for myself. I’ve now encountered the reality that this is not sensationalism. I’ve seen the politeness shown to us, and the aggression shown to others. On reflection, I would probably say that the politeness and warmth of the police was a thin veneer over the underlying aggression that marks this campaign,” he said. He also criticised the Corporation’s approach to homeless services: “It’s precisely the same philosophy used for children and education ‚Äì results, aims, goals and objectives ‚Äì without taking into account the humanity of people,” he said. “If the order were inverted, we’d be far more likely to achieve targets and goals accidentally.”

Tougher approach

Asked about the increasing anger and concern at the new “more assertive” approach (as it is described on the Broadway website) of the partnership of between the City of London Police, Corporation of London and Broadway, Mr Sinclair admitted that the Broadway was “part of that [approach]” and said “I can see how people would see this as a coordinated approach”, though he denied that it was. “If I can provide some reassurances around that, then I will,” he added. “It’s a different approach all around ‚Äì from the City, from the Police, from the partnership… We’re being far more rigorous in engaging with people and providing positive outcomes.” Asked whether Broadway passed on lists of where homeless people are to the City of London police, Mr Sinclair said: “We work closely as agencies, and people speak to each other on the ground and other levels. We do share information. If the police come across someone, they’ll tell us; and if we saw someone was in genuine distress, we’d call in the police,” adding “There isn’t a war-time table with homeless people being plotted.”

Behind the statistics

Following Mr Sinclair’s response to The Pavement and other media outlets, Broadway has now published a number of ‘positive outcomes’ they have recorded since taking on their contract in March (worth £790,682 over three years), which includes: Six individuals booked into B&B; five accessing emergency bed spaces; six people accessing a rolling shelter; nine people gaining hostel accommodation; one person gaining permanent accommodation; and an additional seven housing outcomes pending. The Pavement asked Mr Sinclair where these individuals had gone on to. He was unable to answer. “I don’t know the details of the individuals,” he said. “I don’t work with them directly, so all I would say is that those numbers here have improved.” He later added: “I don’t know of any negative follow-ups”. Mr Sinclair added: “These figures aren’t temporary, they’re figures. Some of the outcomes are temporary, as opposed to permanent. What we haven’t done is found all these people permanent accommodation ‚Äì it doesn’t work like that. But they’re not temporary outcomes. They’re outcomes.” He agreed, however, that the statistics represented a ‘snapshot’ of Broadway’s progress to date, adding “there are individual stories behind that”. The statistics supplied by Broadway also referred to a number of “wider social/healthcare outcomes” including: 11 requests for mental health assessments; two referrals into detox; five people reconnected to their local community i.e. supported to return to their country of origin, namely Poland (with a further three individuals supported from Tower Hamlets).

http://www.thepavement.org.uk/story.php?story=518

Homelessness

The law of the streets

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(The Pavement, 22 May 2009) In recent months, The Pavement has reported on the various enforcement measures being employed to drive homeless people off the streets. But do such tactics actually work and if so, who benefits? These are the questions asked by a report, published last year, which examines the impact of enforcement on ‘street users’ in England. The study, carried out by Sarah Johnsen and Suzanne Fitzpatrick, of the University of York, and published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is primarily concerned with measures used to tackle begging, street drinking and other examples of what is often referred to as “problematic street culture”. However, it also refers to enforcement initiatives used against rough sleepers. The examples of enforcement cited in the report will sadly be familiar to many readers: dispersal orders, the closing down of rough sleeper ‘hot spots’, ‘hot washing’ (wetting the streets to discourage rough sleeping) and arrests under the 1842 Vagrancy Act. The report examines how these interventions have been used and their impact in five key areas – Westminster, Southwark, Birmingham, Leeds and Brighton. From the research carried out, the report concludes that “enforcement is a high-risk strategy, only to be used as a last resort, and never with very vulnerable street users, such as those with mental health problems”. Yet, the report also suggests that many local authorities are increasingly keen to employ these measures in what they see as the “fight against rough sleeping”.

Arrests for sleeping rough

The Pavement recently reported the arrest of Peter Pickles, amongst others, who refused to be ‘moved on’ (issue 33). The incident shocked many people and pointed to a new tough approach by the authorities. This arrest may have been less shocking in Leeds, however, where according to the report homeless people have been arrested under the 1824 Vagrancy Act simply for sleeping rough, a policy carried out, the report claims, in order to “disrupt street lifestyles and address associated ASB”. Arrests as a tactic was not used in any of the other case studies areas. This was, says Dr Johnsen, for a variety of reasons. “The first one being that the police don’t actually want to arrest people who sleep rough. That’s not what they’re about,” she says. “Secondly, there’s a significant fear of public backlash, because while a lot of members of the public – certainly the ones we spoke to – approve of the use of enforcement for people who are begging aggressively or are ‘agro’ street drinkers, most have a very different opinion when it comes to people who are ‘just’ sleeping rough.” “The other reason,” Dr Johnsen explains, “is because it would be of questionable legality in a lot of places, as people can only be arrested if they have refused the offer of ‘freely available’ accommodation. In somewhere like London, you cannot say ‘here’s a bed space available to you right now’ because it just doesn’t happen that way. There’s a real process people have to go through in order to get into a hostel, red tape that has to be negotiated, hoops they have to jump through… It doesn’t happen instantly.” Although the report found instances where arrests acted as a “constructive ‘kick'”, motivating a minority of rough sleepers to look for accommodation, rough sleepers generally just avoided arrest by bedding down further away from the city centre in more hidden places. Most support providers, as well as members of the wider community who were interviewed, were opposed to the arrest of rough sleepers.

Wetting down

The City of London is not the first area to see ‘wetting down’ of rough sleeping spots. In Westminster, the council’s environmental team was instructed to leave pavements of designated areas wet after cleaning the streets to discourage rough sleepers from bedding down at night. The local authority justified this ‘hot washing’ as a deterrent that may, with other measures, encourage rough sleepers to ‘come inside’. All of the rough sleepers spoken to who had been directly affected, like many Pavement readers, merely found alternative, out-of-the-way, places to sleep. Unsurprisingly, hot-washing was strongly criticised by frontline workers. One from Westminster, who was quoted in the report, said: “It’s inhumane… These are some of the most vulnerable people in society… They expect to be knocked by society. It’s the norm for them. But I personally think it’s a pretty appalling way to treat people.”

Dispersal and rough sleeping hot spot closure

Although dispersal orders had been considered in a few case studies, they have not been used to any great extent. While in theory they would help break up large groups of street users, there were concerns that dispersal orders would simply shift street activity to another area. Closing rough sleeping hot spots was thought to be a more effective lever to encourage entrenched street users into services, by both enforcement agents and frontline workers. Used most commonly in central London, as well as Birmingham and elsewhere, one Westminster frontline worker in the report agreed. “If an area is disrupted then it might budge someone in their pattern of going to the same place, at the same time. If they can no longer do that it may make them look at something else,” the worker said. But they emphasised a need for “appropriate interagency coordination” and giving “plenty of warning regarding the date of closure and information about support options available”. They also called for eventual closure to be preceded by intensive outreach work.

Concerns of support providers

Many support providers who were interviewed supported the enforcement measures in principle, provided there was coordination with supportive interventions. However, street outreach workers agreed almost unanimously that enforcement measures caused many rough sleepers to “go underground” and sleep in more hidden places, making them harder to locate and offer support to. Frontline staff also objected to the use of enforcement to combat anything but “genuine” antisocial behaviour. Many support providers were also worried that councils were under pressure to “be seen” to take action against antisocial behaviour, with their clients viewed as “easy targets”.

Tarred with the same brush

Following the reports of harassment of rough sleepers in the City, many people expressed feelings of unease and even anger towards Broadway, the charity contracted by the Corporation of London to carry out homeless outreach work within the Square Mile. “It’s really important that outreach workers aren’t implicated in enforcement actions because they lose their integrity in the eyes of people on the streets,” Dr Johnsen warns. While outreach workers in the report were anxious to distance themselves personally from enforcement, frontline workers wanted a “seat at the table” in antisocial behaviour operational discussions, in order to safeguard the interests of their clients.

The view from the street

Like many service providers, those homeless interviewed were often cynical about the motive behind the enforcement initiatives. “What are the authorities actually after? Is it a vanity, a cosmetic exercise? Do they think we should be out of the way of the visitors?” asked one rough sleeper in Westminster quoted in the report. Not all those interviewed were completely against enforcement tactics for “aggressive” individuals. However, the report notes: “street users on the whole believed that they should be ‘left alone'”.

What’s the future for enforcement?

“There’s [already] been a significant change in perception amongst service providers” said Dr Johnsen. “Since we first began the research people seem to have come to a consensus that enforcement can in some circumstances help some people, but only if appropriate support is effectively integrated, and even then you can’t guarantee that it will work for any one individual.” But, there are still gaps in the provision of some services, she adds. “It’s all very well saying to these people ‘you need to change your way of life, you need to come inside, live in a hostel, you need to get drug or alcohol treatment’ and so on. But if you can’t offer it to them then and there, how justifiable is the threat of dire ramifications for failure to engage?” A major concern for many when reading about these moves will be the loss of free will it marks for readers, as they dictate how and where one should live – instead of relying on an offer of an alternative to life on the street, they are attempts to ban it. Broadway has made much of its statement that “we do not believe it is acceptable that anyone in the 21st century should have to sleep on the streets”. The question perhaps to ask now, some suggest is, ‘acceptable for whom?’. See letters for more on the City story and a legal query.

http://www.thepavement.org.uk/story.php?story=533

London culture

Lewisham Life: Selection of articles

Articles on local cultural happenings, courses and training opportunities for Lewisham Life, the magazine for Lewisham Council.

Work Experience: Are you experienced? (PDF)

LewishamLife_work_experience-1

Christmas Around The World (PDF)

LewLife_Dec_Jan09_WorldXmas

Best In The Business

LewLife_Jul_Aug08_BusLife

Film in Lewisham: Screen Secrets

LewLife_Jul_Aug08_Film

VoxPop: Do you make use of your library?

LewLife_Jul_Aug08_VoxPop

Get ahead in business

LL_Feb08_Bussiness

Caring for the carers

LL_June08_Carers

Sisters doing it for themselves

LewishamLife_black_business_women-1

If the cup fits…

LewishamLife_bra_fitting

Building for the future

LewishamLife_construction_training

Dance Fever

LewishamLife_danceclasses-1

VoxPops: Will the extension of the East London line benefit you?

LewishamLife_eastlondonline_voxpops

Forward-thinking Retreat

LewishamLife_Eden_retreat_July2005 copy

Anti-tag team

business-life-4

Art in Lewisham

LewishamLife_Jul_Aug09_Art_In_Lewisham

Balancing the books

LewishamLife_kirkdale_bookshop

Turning junk into treasure

LewishamLife_May08_Reuse

Getting back to work

LewishamLife_openingdoors

We are the champions

LewishamLife_recycle_competition

Care and committment

LewishamLife_residential_home

Rocklands

LewishamLife_Sept08_Rocklands

A Safe Haven

LewishamLife_thehaven

Who do you love?

LewishamLife_whodoyoulove-1

Homelessness

Mayoral candidates: Boris Johnson interview

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(The Pavement, 5 April 2008) He has been editor of The Spectator, MP and Shadow Minister of Higher Education, but to most people Boris Johnson is that Eton-educated Tory with the shock of blonde hair who goes on Have I got News For You? and makes ill-advised comments about Liverpool. Yet it appears someone has had a word in his ear and suggested that to have a serious pop at winning the crown of London mayor, it might be time to lose the jester’s hat. So there were friendly smiles but no buffoonish jokes as Boris strode into the sparsely decorated County Hall room, and stood on the map of London stuck presidential seal-like on the floor and emblazoned with his campaign slogan ‘Back Boris’.

When handed a copy of The Pavement, Mr Johnson immediately remembered a much earlier brush with homelessness. “Actually one of the first things I ever gave away money to was Shelter, at primary school…”

Thankfully the mayor’s budget holds more money than the average piggy bank. So how would Mr Johnson spend these funds to help homeless people in London? “The most important thing is to help homeless people get the accommodation they need,” he says. “That is why I want to get people into some of the 84,000 empty homes across London. The number of empty homes has risen considerably in the last few years, and the number of people on housing waiting lists has gone up 68 per cent. There is an obvious solution there, it seems to me”.

One of the first things Boris did in his campaign was to visit St Mungo’s in Chelsea. “We talked to a wonderful guy, Edwin, and heard his life story and how homelessness can overtake anybody,” says Mr Johnson. “Growing up, he was a well-off guy, then suddenly he hit the buffers, everything went wrong, and his personal life broke down. These things are often accompanied by some breakdown in emotional, personal lives as well, and suddenly there just seems no way out”.

As mayor, Mr Johnson says he would encourage charities like St Mungo’s, although he warns that while hostels are part of the solution, “in the long run we need to get people off waiting lists and into accommodation. That is why I think homeless people should vote for me if they could vote.” I explain that in fact homeless people can vote, simply by making a declaration of local connection. “Oh, can they? Good!”

The GLA Act, passed in October 2007, gives the mayor of London responsibility for the capital’s housing strategy and investment as well as the power to decide how London’s public money for affordable housing will be spent. And with the newspapers full of credit crunches, repossessions and soaring mortgage interest rates, it is no wonder housing is a big part of the Back Boris campaign.

Like Ken Livingstone, Mr Johnson has pledged 50,000 new affordable homes in 2008-11 while also calling for protection of London’s green belt and an emphasis on quality as well as quantity. “Affordable must not mean second-best,” he says. “It must not mean high-rise council flats. It must not mean being cramped and overcrowded”. Despite these exacting standards, Boris reveals he is not averse to more ‘creative’ ideas. “There are lots of tricks that the current mayor is missing, like Hidden Homes.”

This is a scheme that has been run by Wandsworth Council since 2003. Mr Johnson applauds the council for doing a “fantastic job” finding homes in overlooked places. “They lifted the lid of an underground car park and turned it into lots of wonderful homes. There are 10,000 homes you could find like that”, he says, before mentioning “suburban tube stations” as another possible option.

For Mr Johnson, housing and homelessness are “two sides of the same coin”: Homelessness, he says is “a huge problem and you are dealing with people who have fallen through the housing net who feel completely hopeless and that there’s no one looking out for them”.

So does he back Homeless Link’s goal to eradicate rough sleeping by 2012? Or does he think this is Mr Livingstone being influenced by the upcoming Olympics in London? “I don’t know if it is linked to the Olympics,” he replies cautiously. “I certainly think it is sad there are so many rough sleepers and they deserve help and support.” He supports the target, but is wary of looking underhand. “We are not just doing it to make London look tidy for the Olympics,” he stresses. “We are doing it because we want to help people in their lives.”

However, Mr Johnson admits he is less up to speed with the issues over banning soup runs, a campaign recently put forward by Westminster Council. The scheme failed to obtain approval, and although Mr Johnson is “familiar with the controversy”, he wavers over who would get his support. “There seem to be two sides to the argument,” he says. “What John Bird has to say, I listen to with great respect and interest – I do not want to support measures that will unnecessarily keep people on the street. On the other hand, I do not want to snatch soup from the lips of hungry people. It would be pretty heartless to withhold it.” So which would it be? “We clearly need to work out what the best way forward there is. We will need to see how the Westminster experiment works,” he says.

He does, however, confirm that he is keen to support the voluntary sector and get money to worthy causes around London, like St Mungo’s. “I am also going to be setting up a Mayor’s Fund, which will be a big vehicle for getting money from the wealth-creating sector to the voluntary sector”. This will, he hopes, be a great thing for young people and the homeless, too.

Another hot topic surrounding homelessness in London is the increasing number of homeless people from particularly Central and Eastern Europe. What does Boris think of the situation many ‘A8s’ or A2 nationals (those from recent EU member states Romania and Bulgaria) find themselves in – powerless to claim benefits for a year, unable to find a job and left to fend for themselves on the streets?

“Obviously I hugely welcome the contribution that Polish immigrants have made, and people from all over the A8 countries; they are doing a fantastic job in London and they deserve support,” Mr Johnson enthuses. “But it would be a it would be a tragedy if people were coming to London and ending up in poverty and destitution, unable to get back to family who can look after them”. He cites his recent visit to the POSK centre in Hammersmith and his concern about the “growing” homelessness, despite networks and groups which support people within the Polish community.

Mr Johnson adds that he has a particular interest in the level of assistance provided for the number of ex-service men and women on the streets. Recent statistics suggest that one in four rough sleepers in London have a military background. Mr Johnson has pledged to introduce free bus travel for returning veterans of current wars. “I think it is about time that we did something for lots of people that are coming back from wars, which we may or may not agree with, and finding that the country they are fighting for is very cold and unwelcoming,” he says. “I think it would be a good thing to show some recognition of the sacrifices they have made.” He cannot resist adding: “I am pleased to see the mayor has now imitated us… he has had eight years to think of this, but has decided to do it as well – and about time too.”

During the interview he asks: “What’s your estimated of the number of rough sleepers in London?” and, when looking through The Pavement, “What’s the Soup Run Forum?” Perhaps Mr Johnson is keen to engage and learn more about the homeless community and the latest issues. He comments how every morning he cycles past the queue of people waiting outside St Martin’s in the Fields and wonders “what have they been doing all night?”

As we wind up the interview, The Pavement photographer asks Mr Johnson to pose with a copy of the magazine, which he does readily, flicking through the pages at the same time. He soon comes across the photo on the foot care page and with a cry of revulsion (“Ooh… aah… nasty!”), the serious politician demeanour slips and for a moment Mr Johnson is once again that young boy who did his bit for Shelter.

http://www.thepavement.org.uk/story.php?story=394