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Temporary halt of Operation Poncho

May 22 2009
The Corporation may resume the hot-washing policy if homeless figures go up again A meeting between local government representatives and homeless organisations to discuss some of the extreme measures used in the City, under Operation Poncho, has resulted in a temporary halt of a number of them. The meeting, which took place on 24th July at the Simon Community offices, was chaired by Reverend Simon Perry, of Bloomsbury church, and saw representatives from the Corporation of London, the City of London Police and charity Broadway discuss the matter with those involved and members of the Simon Community, as well as Sarah Johnsen, a researcher from York University. Readers of The Pavement have described Operation Poncho, which the Corporation of London undertook to reduce the number of rough sleepers in the City, as a campaign of deliberate harassment directed at people sleeping on the streets. Those working on behalf of rough sleepers sought to stop City of London Police officers hosing down people in the early hours of the morning. Operation Poncho also involves random 'welfare checks' on rough sleepers at early hours of the morning. As a result of the meeting, it was agreed the harsh measure of hosing down would be stopped temporarily, at least until the next meeting between the parties takes place later this month. Rev Perry said: "The meeting went very well. It was difficult to chair, but it had a good outcome. I was really impressed with the way that [the Corporation of London] responded to our questions. There was an openness I wasn't expecting." He added that in the next meeting the parties would "explore more fully whether the hosing down measure is working". While the Corporation of London had agreed police officers will not hose down bedding down sites for the time being, Rev Perry said he did not know whether it had stopped permanently. "The basic intention was to stop it while its effectiveness is tested," he added. "The parties are in the process of verifying whether it is an effective measure. The Corporation has agreed to stop it provisionally, but it may resume it if homeless figures go up again." The head of Bloomsbury church claimed the Corporation of London was being put under pressure by the Department of Communities and Local Government (CLG), which has "unrealistic targets" in terms of reducing the number of rough sleepers. CLG has said in the past that its objective is to dramatically reduce the number of rough sleepers. "In 1998, the prime minister set the target that by 2002 the number of rough sleepers should be reduced by two-thirds from the 1,850 that were sleeping rough back then," a spokesperson said. "This target was met in 2001 and has been sustained with a level of just under 500 in 2007 and the government is committed to reducing levels of rough sleeping to as close to zero as possible." Rev Perry added: "At the next meeting, we will try to understand what is the logic behind hosing people down. It seems it is for the benefit of those who feel uncomfortable with people sleeping rough rather than the homeless people themselves. The government seems more concerned with the impression its creates rather than solving the problem." However, Rev Perry recognised the next meeting could be trickier. "At the moment we're just in a limbo - we have to wait and see," he said. "We don't know how the effectiveness of the hosing down measure will be assessed. "It's obviously an ethically indefensible way of doing things, but we have to focus on assessing what's working and what's not at the moment. If the spirit of the next meeting will be the same as the last one, the outcome could be equally good." Despite the increasing pressure local councils are under to meet rough sleeping targets, the CLG points out that "the rough sleeping target is a national target rather than a local one." The National Rough Sleeping Estimate published by the CLG for 2007 showed there were 498 people sleeping rough on the streets of England on any single night. The 2008 rough sleeping figure is due to be published by the CLG in September 2008. * It's feared that the pressure will increase again soon, see Rumours in the City, letters.