The council made infamous by Shirley Porter is at it again, forcing people it considers undesirable out of the borough. In the eighties it was low income Labour-voting families; this time it’s some of society’s most vulnerable.
Cllr Daniel Astaire, the council’s Cabinet Member for Society, Families and Adult Services audaciously told the Daily Mirror:
“Soup runs have no place in the 21st century. It is undignified that people are being fed on the streets. They actually encourage people to sleep rough with all the dangers that entails. Our priority is to get people off the streets altogether. We have a range of services that can help do that.”
But what Westminster councillors have not mentioned is that they are actively seeking to close the very hostels and services that help people off the streets and into a life of normality. One of these is the 100-plus bed Victoria Hostel in Castle Lane.
Westminster – like all borough councils – is given a budget to provide services for people in acute housing need, including rough sleepers. Most boroughs have had this budget cut, but Westminster has actually been given an increase – presumably in recognition of the need. And instead of using this extra money to carry out its legal and moral duty to help rough sleepers, it is slashing services and is prepared to waste police time and court resources by criminalising those who need help.
It’s difficult not to think that this is anything other than a cynical manoeuvre to turn Westminster into one big gated-community, and to seal it and its more well heeled residents off from a problem that’s getting worse across the city.
The combination of a stalling economy, rising unemployment, housing and benefit reforms will all conspire to push many more people into homelessness and increase levels of rough sleeping.
No assessment has been made by the government of the costs and impact of their housing and welfare reforms. The government’s total cap on benefits, which will hammer the budgets of families on low incomes, combined with their plan to raise social housing rents to 80 per cent of market rates will put intolerable stress on housing services in London.
Most damaging of all will be raising the age threshold for the Single Room Rate from 25 to 35. As one charity leader told me, rough sleepers will struggle to find normal shared housing. Forcing people to live together is a policy that has failed in the past and will fail again.
The Government must act now to stop rough sleeping getting worse. If it wants to convince us that these reforms are not ideologically driven, it must get tough with councils like Westminster by refusing this byelaw and reintroducing ring-fencing for those budgets that protect vulnerable people.
Without this, there is little the Mayor’s London Delivery Board on rough sleeping will be able to do to hold back the tide.
Most crucial of all, the government must rethink its housing and benefit reforms. As they stand they will lead to social segregation on an unprecedented scale – and rough sleeping is just the tip of the iceberg.
Nicky Gavron AM
Labour Group Spokesperson for Housing and Planning on the London Assembly
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