Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Westminster's count

September 26 2009
How reliable are the street counts and how does the council try to meet government targets? A Pavement investigation has found evidence that the authorities operating in Westminster are actively attempting to skew the official homeless street count figures. A source close to the magazine who wishes to remain anonymous, attended a meeting in which Victoria Van De Knapp, deputy rough sleeping manager for Westminster Council, local police and representatives from, amongst others, St Mungo's discussed what measures they would take to reduce the number of people bedding down in Westminster on the night of a scheduled headcount. "The police announced that they have changed their shift pattern to include a 12-hour night shift, so that they can wake people up between 1am and 5am, and tell them that they need to go into a hostel for the two weeks surrounding the headcount," our source said. Anyone who refused to go indoors would be urged to temporarily leave the borough, the source added. The meeting took place in Victoria on 2nd September 2008, and the headcount took place on Wednesday 24th September 2008. Meanwhile, there was a spike in the number of hostel vacancies on the Homeless London website in the run up to the headcount. On 10th September, there were more than 50 spaces available in the city, most of which were through Buildings Based Services that work with the council. Website users contacted The Pavement to highlight this figure as being unusually high; they suspected that this indicated a count was due. For the weeks running up to the Westminster count vacancies remained at a similarly high level. The Pavement has been following concerns about the manipulation of headcounts since it was launched. Our source from the meeting approached us because they considered the measures discussed to be inhumane. "You can only sleep in Westminster between 1am and 5am; it is a busy part of the city, there are many people around, and so those on the streets are sleep-deprived anyway," the source told The Pavement. "If the police wake them in these crucial four hours, they may become disorientated. It is quite an aggressive tactic and quite like bullying behaviour." Adam Rees, St Mungo's Group Manager for Community Services confirmed that his team was working with authorities in Westminster. "St Mungo's Westminster team work extremely hard to offer the best outcomes to their clients. This involves tailored approaches to each client depending on their needs and the resources available," he explained. When asked whether any policy changes were being introduced at the time of street counts Mr Rees added: "Counting numbers on the streets is a simple measure to determine trends over time. The offer of hostel places and other services are common throughout the year. As are police activities. The idea that extra hostel beds are made available or people rushed through the system is simply false. Many vulnerable people are helped off the streets before counts and after counts. The reduction in numbers on the streets reflects better, more thoughtful and accountable service delivery and sheer hard work." The organisation did not comment on whether they attended the Westminster meeting. At the same time as The Pavement received this information, our readers who highlighted the use of water bowsers in the City to disturb rough sleepers reported 'Operation Poncho' had restarted along Fleet Street on two consecutive nights in September. The Corporation of London has denied restarting the action, which attracted outcry on the BBC earlier in the summer, but Pavement readers are adamant their sleep was being manipulated. It is unclear whether the action in the Square Mile is linked to events in Westminster. A spokesperson for Westminster Council could not confirm a change in policy, but took care to explain why the authorities focus was on moving people indoors. "It has always been our stance that individuals suffer ill health and risk exposure to other risks while they remain on the streets. Hence, the outreach and Building Based workers within the voluntary sector do there utmost to encourage individuals to come indoors." They did confirm that the authorities were 'meeting constantly' to monitor the number of rough sleepers in the borough and to ensure that the counts meet best practice guidelines set by central government. "It ensures that we secure a reliable snap shot of who was sleeping on the streets on the night of the count along with demographic data and length of time on the streets," they added. The Simon Community has described the treatment of rough sleepers in the borough as 'draconian.' Its service users and outreach workers had been made aware of Operation Poncho in the City and the increased 'welfare checks' being undertaken by police. Steve Barnes, of the Simon Community, believes these early morning wake-ups and move-ons are intended to encourage people to engage with services, but said this was not a solution to the problem. "Experience shows that coercion is not a cure for homelessness, successful detox or a reduction in chaotic behaviour. Rather it exacerbates an already volatile situation by inducing negative reactions amongst those it claims to help," he said. "Any accommodation which is on offer is of a very poor standard and is neither a genuine offer of help nor suitable accommodation for those who are vulnerable through long periods of homelessness, substance abuse or mental or physical ill health." The Simon Community, and other smaller charities working in the area, have not been invited to the council's meetings. It is believed that the authorities are forced to adopt these measures in order to meet government-set targets. By reducing the number of rough sleepers registered in the headcounts, the police and charities operating in Westminster will appear to be succeeding in reducing the numbers of homeless people in the borough. "Westminster set targets and they commission organisations such as St Mungo's, Thames Reach and Connections [at St Martin's] to meet them," explained our source. "If the targets are not met, charities such as these will be under pressure and may not secure further funding. The unspoken threat is that if these targets are not met, then the contracts will go elsewhere, they have no comeback, they cannot say that reducing the numbers is not possible, because that would be seen as a failure in their services." Although the official Westminster count is independently verified, there is a call from homeless organisations to remove the responsibility of doing the count from the body that also holds the purse strings. The fact that the numbers are linked so closely to the finances of the authorities collating them undermines the objectivity and accuracy of the counts, and also puts rough sleepers in the city at risk of mistreatment. A week before the official count, Housing Justice undertook an independent count. They use ex-rough sleepers, members of the Simon Community and outreach workers, who know where to find the city's homeless. Their count, on Tuesday 9th September, found 206 rough sleepers - almost double the official Westminster figures from June. At the time of going to press, the figures for the official count were not available to us. However, we will report on them in the November issue.