Councils’ policies on rough sleepers spark outrage from support groups

Homelessness organisations have been left “appalled” and
“staggered” by the treatment two councils are giving to rough

Last week, Westminster Council announced what it called a “new and
unique” approach to reduce the number of rough sleepers in the
London borough by withdrawing street services to them. At the same
time Stoke-on-Trent Council unveiled plans to pipe music 24 hours a
day into a car park in the town to deter rough sleepers from
congregating there.

The moves coincide with the passing of the deadline for councils to
have in place a homelessness strategy under the Homelessness Act

Westminster had already caused controversy last October with plans
to fine people £500 if they were caught sleeping rough and
social services director Julie Jones said there was no need for
anyone to be spending the nights on the streets.

That policy has been played its part in reducing the number of
rough sleepers in the borough from 237 in summer 1998 to 109 this
summer. But the council now wants to “drive the numbers permanently
below 100”.

From October 2004, access to health care and benefits will not be
offered to rough sleepers. Instead they will have to report to
shelters, hostels and day centres.

Westminster has also awarded homelessness charity Thames Reach
Bondway a contract for rapid intervention. From this October, the
team will try to coax rough sleepers into accepting accommodation
in shelters and hostels.

Elisabeth Pritchard, chief executive of Homeless Link, which
represents more than 700 agencies working with homeless people,
said that, although it may not be the intention, the “coercive”
plans could merely move rough sleepers from one borough to the

She warned that many rough sleepers had multiple needs, such as
mental health and substance abuse problems, and for those people
hostels may not be appropriate.

Adam Sampson, director of homelessness charity Shelter, has “grave
reservations” about Westminster’s proposals. The plans appear to be
motivated “more by a desire to make the streets of Westminster more
pleasant for tourists than to address the needs of homeless
people”. He called for serious investment in services to encourage
people to leave the streets, including low-cost accommodation and
access to drug treatment. “In the absence of this, Westminster will
merely be committing itself to measures that make life increasingly
uncomfortable for people sleeping on the street, which are punitive
and will only displace the problem into other London boroughs,” he

A spokesperson for homelessness charity Crisis said that the
charity is “deeply concerned” about Westminster’s plans to withdraw
services from the street. “To do so risks abandoning vulnerable
people and would mean giving up on a service that is working well
and creating positive change for rough sleepers.”

The spokesperson highlighted the positive outreach work done by
Westminster and the now disbanded government-run rough sleepers
unit in the past, which engaged with some of the most excluded

Stoke-on-Trent Council is playing classical music at John Street
multi-storey car park in a part of Hanley known as the “cultural
quarter” to deter a group of 10 rough sleepers who have been
accused of drug-dealing and antisocial behaviour.

A council spokesperson insisted the move was “not an attack on the
homeless”. But, with no waiting list for council accommodation,
those genuinely needing support could be placed immediately.

Mike Tristram, director of the Simon Community, said he was
“staggered” by the move. “These are the most vulnerable and needy
people in society. To harass them is just appalling,” he said.

“Perhaps they need to ask why some people are choosing to sleep in
car parks rather than go into their housing.”

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