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Westminster - two sides of the argument

April 15 2011
A former rough sleeper and a Westminster councillor have - unsurprisingly - rather different views

Dear Editor,

In response to your ‘Westminster plan ban’ article in the March edition of The Pavement. I was a rough sleeper on London’s streets for nearly eight years before I took a flat two years ago having reached the age of 60.

While homeless I was certainly not encouraged to remain so by free food and drinks handouts, my personal circumstances were more complex than that and revolved around financial reasons. So for anyone to suggest that soup runs encourage rough sleeping is just nonsense and bureaucratic propaganda.

I also understand and appreciate that soup runs also serve as a social networking opportunity for many people, be they homeless or not, who might otherwise live a very isolated, lonely and impoverished lifestyle.

Soup runs are not strictly a homeless issue, rather they now serve a social need providing not only food and beverages, but also compassion and understanding which highlights the poverty and deprivation that exists in the lower levels of our society. Something perhaps the government and Westminster City Council would sooner not consider or acknowledge.

Finally, as for the proposed by law to stop people from sleeping in public places - “No person shall lie down or sleep in or on any public place.” It will be interesting to see how this affects the many non-homeless people that lie and often sleep in London’s parks during the hot summer days. Perhaps this law would only be applicable to homeless people should it be introduced?

Michael

 

Dear Editor,

I have read about your plans for a demonstration against Westminster City Council’s proposed byelaw on soup runs in the Victoria area and wanted to write to you directly about a number of issues.

I know that our proposals are sensitive but I can assure you that we would only have pursued such a resolution as a last resort. I hope we share the same aspiration to help people off the streets, though I acknowledge that we are likely to disagree on the best means of achieving these goals.

As the custodians of central London, we recognise that vulnerable people who feel they have nowhere to turn will often find themselves on our streets. It is for exactly this reason that we invest £9million a year on homelessness provision - more than any other local authority in the country.

London’s streets, are no place for people to live in the 21st century and we fully accept our duty to support and care for people. As a local authority, we are committed to providing services that improve lives. These services must be as open and accessible as possible.

For that reason, our aim is a simple one: get people off the streets and engaged with services that can help turn their lives around.  Every year we help more than 1,000 rough sleepers off the streets. This is achieved through the extensive work done to address the complex needs of rough sleepers including drug and alcohol abuse services, initiatives to reconnect them with family members, counselling, training for employment, literacy programmes and of course accommodation.

However as people have moved off the streets, the number of soup runs in the Victoria area has increased. Despite all our efforts over the last decade to resolve the issue with soup run providers, the frequency and concentration of soup runs around the Westminster Cathedral Piazza have increased. That is why our proposals relate to just one small part of the city.

Soup run providers come from all over London and beyond to deliver food and drink in the Piazza area and they attract homeless people from across the city who would be better off accessing public and voluntary sector services within their own communities.

Those who give up their time to help people who need food should be applauded, but we believe they can make a far better impact if they look for other ways to help the homeless and put their energy to good use, without delivering food on the streets. We are prepared to help individuals and organisations fulfil that goal.

Finally, I would like to stress that our proposals are at the consultation stage and we are encouraging people to make their voices heard. We will then assess the responses before taking any request for permission to introduce a byelaw to the Department for Communities and Local Government, should such a proposal be voted for at a meeting of our full council. At this stage I still hope to be able to work with soup run providers to reach a solution that is right for all parties without the need for any formal legislation.
 

Cllr Daniel Astaire
Cabinet Member for Society, Families and Adults
Westminster City Council

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