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Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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What's the count?

September 26 2009
More accusations of fixing the homeless figures... A leading homeless charity has accused Westminster Council of "temporarily forcing" rough sleepers off the streets in time for a head count on 24th September. Christian charity Housing Justice claims the council moved 137 people in time for September's count, which found an all-time low of 69 rough sleepers across the borough. Charity volunteers carried out their own count - using the same system as the council - just two weeks before and found 206 people. Housing Justice London coordinator Sally Leigh said: "We've spoken to dozens of homeless people who say they were either shunted into temporary hostels by council outreach teams or hassled by the police night after night in the run-up to the count, so they moved out of the area for a few days. "Unfortunately, some people are unwilling to take up any offers of beds in hostels. "Others are not eligible to access a hostel place because they have no benefits entitlements, or can't prove a sufficient local connection. Others don't wish to move out or be moved out of Westminster to a different location. And some don't wish to be found by official services of any kind. "For these people, Housing Justice believes that the main outcome of stronger enforcement is simply to displace them to areas where homelessness services are less developed and where they are more visible, and therefore vulnerable, to local hostility. "Such strong-arm tactics only temporarily drive down the numbers of rough sleepers on the streets of Westminster for the purposes of the count." Despite this, Westminster Council insists homelessness is not being undercounted and highlights how it has helped 750 homeless people off the streets and into accommodation in the past year. But last year the authority came under fire for cracking down on soup kitchens for "encouraging people to sleep rough" and for implementing the aggressive policy of "hot washing", which is similar to Operation Poncho in the City. Operation Poncho - a programme run by the Met Police, the Corporation of London and homeless charity Broadway in the City of London - tries to remove people bedded down for the night by waking them up in the early hours and then pouring water over their piece of pavement, to prevent them going to sleep again. Westminster Council denies the practice of hot washing, but a study published last year by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that it was employed as a measure to deal with problematic street culture. Report co-author Sarah Johnsen added: "All hot washing did was disperse rough sleepers, and this can distance vulnerable people from services." Both hot washing and Operation Poncho (in the City) have been criticised as being ruthless and inappropriate ways of dealing with rough sleepers, and shortly after being introduced in April, Operation Poncho was temporarily suspended following complaints by church groups and housing campaigners. But the police have recently confirmed that Operation Poncho has resumed, as both they and councils come under increasing pressure to meet government targets to have zero people sleeping rough by 2012. Rev Simon Perry, of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, said: "Operation Poncho is subhuman - waking people up and forcing them to accept your help." Housing Justice said its tally was conducted in the exact same way as the council and has pledged to carry out another spot check within weeks. Ms Leigh added: "Before the council's count, many rough sleepers were moved and woken up by the police several times at night - we have lots of testimony about that - so they slept in alleyways, increasing their exposure to danger. "We are also aware that the police changed shift patterns immediately after the Housing Justice count, in a push to encourage rough sleepers to engage with Westminster's outreach workers and building based services. We believe they also tried to persuade people who couldn't engage with services to leave the borough. "Many frontline workers in homelessness as well as the police and others who are tasked with enforcement see the official street count as having become politically motivated, as a measure of the success (or otherwise) of central government homelessness policy. "Housing Justice would like to see all street counts carried out independently, and led by voluntary organisations and churches so that the results are credible. "However, we do wish to congratulate Westminster on the numbers of people they have housed and assisted through their range of services this year. We believe the standards of care offered by the borough through its various hostels and other facilities are good, and we would like to work with them to ensure that all those who are street homeless receive the help they need to rebuild their lives." Before last month's count, the most recent official Westminster Council tally took place in June 2008 and found 111 people - more than a third higher than September's total. Meanwhile, a headcount carried out by the Simon Community in April found there to be 241 people bedded down for the night in eight London boroughs. The charity is carrying out its next headcount on 30th October. Housing Justice's headcount was carried out by more than 30 volunteers from Housing Justice, the Simon Community, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, ASLAN, the Salvation Army, Finchley Churches Together Winter Shelter, CARIS Islington Churches Cold Weather Shelter, Open House Film Club and White Box Digital. They went out in pairs between midnight and 4.00am on the morning of 9th September. More counts to come? At time of going to press, rumours reached The Pavement, from a reliable source, that Westminster council are preparing for another street count despite having on just completed a major count on 24th September. It's suggested that it will take place in the first or second week of November. If you find yourself being counted, please let us know - address on page 3. Editor
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