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Westminster Council and the police: are the homeless being forced to move on?

May 18 2009
Barnes: Barnes:
Readers come forward with tales of being moved on The Pavement has been told many times that move-ons occur before Westminster Council's street counts, both by those on the streets and those working in homeless organizations, but the Council and police still deny this happens, despite a political need to lower figures. Street counts have raised questions about the manipulation of figures and the involvement of the police in working with the homeless population in recent years, as reports came from the victims of what seems like a clumsy attempt of making the streets of London appear neat and free of poverty. The most recent of these reports came in form of readers' letters to The Pavement, and sometimes from those in organizations free to speak out. Most recently this paper was contacted by readers who had been told to leave the Westminster area prior to a street count on 27th September 2006. One stated: "Over the past three years I have been homeless in London, each month - just before the head count - we are intimated, threatened and harassed by the police homeless unit to leave the Westminster area." Other readers told us that rough sleepers in the Westminster area were told to "go to Chelsea" instead, thus removing them from the Council's area. Sadly, when we investigated them, these reports were echoed by the many who had had similar experiences. Jack Tafari, of the Homeless Front UK, told The Pavement that he and three other people were "swept" by the police from Surrey Street, off the Strand, prior to the Westminster count last year. He told us: "The police said that we were a bit of an eyesore and were having a negative affect on tourism, and that the Council was tired of us staying in the Surrey Street gateway. They said that the property had just come under new ownership and that the new owner had complained of our presence." He added: "They said it would be better if we moved south of the river, because for the next little while we could expect to have our sleep routinely disturbed, that we'd be woken up several times a night if we continued to stay in Westminster." Another reader, independent of this group, said that this had happened to him, and actually contacted us to let us know he thought it meant a street count was about to occur. He was correct. Roy Bidamour, who lives in the Victoria and Mayfair area, said: "It's not a rumour any more - it's a known fact. We are worried and confused, because we have been threatened and harassed. The police have said to us 'go for the night and we won't stress you again'. They promised a certain amnesty to the ones who would move on." Voices within some homeless organisations substantiated what the victims said. Chris Peacock, of Aslan, said: "Westminster Council representatives think that they need to get tough with people and that people have to be forced off the streets. They see anybody who is taking a more constructive approach as being a problem, and although in their eyes they're trying to come up with solutions, theirs is a very harsh argument." Steve Barnes, who worked several years ago within Thames Reach Bondway in Westminster, said: "I have been aware of people being moved on before street counts since 2001, when I remember sitting in a room with 30 or so CAT [outreach] workers who had been involved in the official count, and they were all complaining about the things that had occurred; including parties being arranged [in hostels] on the night of the count, one-way bus tickets to people to leave the area before the count, and sticking people in B&Bs. "Then I met with Ian Brady, who was Louise Casey's [head of the Government's Rough Sleeper Unit] 'number two' at the time, who flatly denied everything. It was quite amazing." It seems it's all about figures. Even in the mainstream press, the authorities have been questioned about the way they dealt with street counts since they began. In December 2001, the Sunday Mirror published articles questioning the Government's figures on homelessness after authorities said that the number had gone down by two-thirds to 530 in the whole country. At this time, Louise Casey was head of the central Government's Rough Sleeping Unit (RSU), a new unit within what is now the Department for Communities and Local Government. This period marked the modern move towards larger, more corporate charities, usually funded by central government grants. Many say the downside of this is that because they are run as businesses, they need to prove their worth to those who paid them. They need figures. And these have to be going down to prove success. Some charity heads must be worrying where the money will come from when they get the numbers down to zero. As part of these new ideas to deal with homelessness, the RSU started regular Task and Targetting (T and T) meetings, which were attended by representatives from all the main homeless charities contracted to work in the area, and representatives from the police and the Council. Mr Barnes said: "During my time working as an outreach worker with Thames Reach, all this stuff came up around the time of every [street] count. The Council's Task & Targeting meetings is where a lot of the decisions are made about how best to work with people, and its agenda is very much based around moving people on." He says that in Westminster, this included police harassment, street cleaners hosing down bedding sites, and gates being padlocked where people slept. The police are part of the Council 'strategy' to reduce rough sleeping, in that they are involved in partnership meetings attended by many statutory bodies to discuss the homeless. However, how closely they work with the Council is seldom questioned, nor who calls the shots with regard the dealings with the homeless. A person who has slept on the streets of London for a number of years, who did not want to be named, said about the police's homeless unit: "We know that should we make a fuss about their tactics, they can come back at any time and move us on from our sleeping quarters. They will win every time. Hence the reluctance for the street people to complain about many issues." Asked why the police go out on counts, a spokesperson for the Council said: "The police always goes out with the contracted homeless organisations on street count night?î??? We have safety issues to address and it's important that police officers go out with our staff, in case some unsafe situation occurs." They added: "We also need the police to identify everybody we count in order to avoid double counting people. The reason why other counts showed higher numbers might be because they don't identify people, and sometimes count them twice." The spokesperson would not comment on whether the police had gone out to move people on prior to a street count, referring to our reports as "anecdotal evidence", but did say that the Council is "not using any heavy-handed tactics." Responding to concerns about police involvement with counts and their lack of training in social care issues, Westminster Council's spokesperson responded: "They already know a lot about these issues, and it's an education process that we share with them. They provide assistance and we inform them on many things, to work in partnership with the idea that people will be better off when they leave life on the streets. By involving the police in the work, we are not suggesting that homeless people are criminals." The official response from the police to the allegations was: "Officers from this small team [the homeless unit based at Charing Cross] go out during all hours to check on the welfare of people sleeping rough on the streets. The aim is to prevent vulnerable people getting drawn into crime either as a victim or as a perpetrator." A spokesperson said that the police's homeless unit conducts a count of homeless people in this area to assist in gathering and verifying information about the number of rough sleepers in the area, and that officers will approach rough sleepers to confirm their identity to ensure we have the complete picture. "We refute the suggestion that officers tell homeless people to sleep elsewhere. Officers from the unit perform night duties once every eight weeks regardless of whether there is a head count or not," the spokesperson added. However, Mr Barnes's comments to The Pavement echo a distrust of this that many readers and those working in homeless organizations feel: "The police should be dealing with criminals, rather than helping to criminalise the poor and marginalised. Westminster Council continues to move away from care and towards enforcement in its treatment of rough-sleepers. While services have improved in the last 10 years, with more services and initiatives available for homeless people, a number of good service providers have been co-opted by the government, which is keen to hide the real size of the homeless problem. This is about a lot of things, hiding inequality, the Olympics, and political reputations." There can be little doubt that the police will continue to work with Westminster Council, and that street numbers will reduce on paper as we approach the 2012 Olympic. However, it remains to be seen if the police will continue to stand by the council, or seek distance themselves from the muddy politics surrounding rough sleeping.
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