Westminster’s homeless ban is wrong but soup runs need to change

(slightly different versions of this article were published in The Guardian, The Methodist Recorder and The Church Times, April 2011)

Westminster City Council’s proposals to ban both rough sleeping and soup runs within the Victoria area has certainly provoked a response. It has featured on the TV news headlines, radio phone-ins and in the press. The internet is positively awash with angry responses to the plans. 

The proposals, from a Tory council popularly considered to be the richest local authority in the country, were always going to be a hard story to sell. But there are many additional factors which make these plans appear so harsh.

Firstly, we are in the middle of deep recession which has created widespread unemployment and deepened poverty levels, two of the key factors that cause homelessness.  Secondly, social care budgets have been cut across the board and have directly reduced key outreach and hostel services for rough sleepers in Westminster.  Thirdly, in addition to the sprucing up of London as part of next year’s Olympics, just down the road from the byelaw zone, there is a Royal Wedding rolling into town next month.  The conspiracy theorists don’t have to work too hard to join the dots to see that rough sleepers need to be removed from view.  Fourthly and most ironically, we have a government (again just down the road) basing its whole social policy on the importance of each of us getting out there, helping others and building the ‘Big Society’. 

The signs emerging are that Westminster are going to be forced to withdraw the proposals due to the scale of the opposition they have provoked.  Some of the loudest protests have come from an alliance of church groups, homelessness organisations, human rights watchdogs and the assortment of individuals who actually deliver the soup runs.  Last Sunday they organised a protest at the epicentre of the controversy outside Westminster Cathedral in Victoria – a ‘party on the piazza’ to protest against ‘making compassion criminal’.  Many activists vowed to fight the ban if it becomes law and pledged to be martyrs to the cause and distribute the food whatever the consequences.

However opposition has also come from less expected sources as both the Tory Mayor Boris Johnson and the Conservative central government have not supported the plans either.  The Commons Leader, Sir George Young, has said that he hopes Westminster would now be seeking “a more enlightened approach” to the issue rather than pursuing a legislative ban.

The political sensitivities of rough sleeping

It is important to consider why the proposals have caused such strong reactions.  The answer lies in the fact that the public’s perception of rough sleepers is still one of genuine sympathy rather than harsh judgement. Sleeping on the pavement is one of the most obvious manifestations of poverty in the UK and it instinctively inspires compassion in most people.   This is why homelessness organisations use these concepts and images so much in their marketing materials – it speaks to people and motivates people to donate.  So when those in power talk about laws which ban people sleeping rough and preventing others from helping them they are faced with an uphill battle.  It is hard for them to present a case which does not look harsh and unjust to the ordinary person.

The truth is that Westminster City Council (WCC) misread the political sensitivities of their proposals.  As they have sought to micro-manage the plight of rough sleepers and respond to the concerns of the local residents around their City Hall, they have lost sight of the bigger picture.  In the context of a recession and rising inequality between rich and poor, these kinds of proposals were never going to gain widespread support and they deserve the angry response they have had.

Unnecessary polarisation

The West London Mission is based at Hinde Street Methodist Church and we have been working with rough sleepers in Westminster for decades through our West London Day Centre in Marylebone and also the Homeless Arrest Reach-out and Referral Team (HARRT).  We have both received funding from Westminster City Council and also continue to work very closely with churches.  We are very concerned about the polarising of the debate between extremes of harsh enforcement and indiscriminate compassion that easily occurs when discussing homelessness. 

One of the worst consequences of the controversies around the proposed ban is that it exacerbates this polarisation even further. We have, once again, ended up with a situation that is dominated by caricatures and simplistic arguments.  At some points over the last few weeks it has resembled a pantomime: on one side, you have Westminster City Council (“boo! hiss!”), with a small number of homeless agencies willing to support their proposed ban (“sell outs!”) and the other side you have an alliance of individuals, grassroots groups and church activists (“hurrah! up the revolution! anyone for minestrone?”).  

But there are a good number of charities and churches who do not want to debate the issue in the way it has been framed.  We firmly believe that WCC are wrong in proposing this byelaw – we think it is poorly thought out, unjust and counter-productive.  But that does not mean that give our wholesale support to the approach taken by many of the soup runs.

Why soup runs need to change

Even though this ban looks like failing, it does not mean that soup runs in central London should continue to work in the same way as they have done in recent years.  As a fellow director of another Christian homeless organisation said to me recently ‘Soup runs do have a place…and that place is in history’.  It would be best for homeless people if those who operate soup runs face up to legitimate critique and seek to make real changes to the way they operate.  There are a number of key issues to be addressed. 

Firstly, the street-based nature of soup runs gives the clear impression that they are for rough sleepers but of course the recipients are far more diverse than that.  The problem is that this perpetuates the impression that the street is where help, generosity and kindness can be accessed and this inevitably draws a wide range of people who are in genuine need of these things.  It would be appropriate and humane for soup runs to operate from a building where relationships can be developed and those in need are more easily referred to other services that they need.

Secondly, the way that soup runs feed into creating ‘hot spots’ of large groups of challenging people that do create genuine difficulties for neighbours.  This is because soup runs require a critical mass of recipients – if you are giving out food you need to go to a place where people are already, or will be, gathered.  This leads to a situation where soup runs literally follow each other to hot spots in order to guarantee they ‘find’ the necessary numbers of people who want what they are giving away. 

Thirdly, too many people are still coming in to central London from a long way out to deliver the soup runs.  It would be far better if they helped people more locally. I have spoken to church groups from Essex and Kent about looking to serve people closer to home but the excitement of ‘going into London’ always seems to override other considerations.

Fourthly, it is right to acknowledge the commitment, motivation and the faith of those dedicated to running soup runs.  But, alongside this, we have to recognise that similarly to City Hall, there are also some powerful egos at work here.  Often, the identity of people gets wrapped up so closely with the service they are delivering – that it leads to a passionate zeal which is defensive towards any critique.  As ever, these issues become even more complex when rooted in a faith commitment. 

However, none of these issues are new, and there has been work going on for many years to seek to better coordinate and communicate with the soup run organisers.  I sincerely hope that the work done by Housing Justice and also more recently by The Passage bear fruit in overcoming some of these challenges and bringing real change to how this compassionate work is delivered.

There are plenty of great examples to learn from. For example the church where I am based, Hinde Street Methodist Church, has for over 20 years run a Wednesday Club where homeless and vulnerable people can come for four hours for food, talking and friendship.  The other church in our Circuit, Kings Cross Methodist Church has run a similar club on a Friday.  This is locally based work responding to local need – it builds genuine relationships and shows the vital contribution that churches can make to serving the needs of vulnerable people on its doorstep.  

Moving forward

So after the furore of this proposed ban dies down, what should be the way forward? 

Westminster City Council should learn from their mistakes and avoid such counter-productive measures again.  I think this starts with showing greater respect for the homeless agencies that they describe as partners.  I would favour the introduction of a mandatory registration scheme for all soup runs to ensure that duplication and poor practice is reduced as much as possible. 

Current soup run coordinators should commit to continuing to meet with others in the Soup Run Forums and explore about delivering hospitality from buildings and working in partnership with churches and other agencies.

Churches who are interested in helping those in need should explore the wide range of services they could run locally.   Schemes such as Food Bank and Street Pastors are proven methods that make a real difference to a community – and this would be far better than venturing into central London.

The tragedy of Westminster City Council’s proposals is that instead of building partnership and trust, they have sown more seeds of discord and division.  But, Iet’s hope that all the agencies and individuals involved can move on from the wreckage of their plans and together work for a future where homeless people receive the best of what churches, voluntary groups and statutory agencies can offer them.

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