Dave Hill: Rough sleeping in London won’t be reduced by moralising and denial

Dave Hill: Rough sleeping in London won’t be reduced by moralising and denial

Mark Field, the Conservative MP whose heavy handling of a climate change protester has knocked the shine off a once rather suave public persona, has been taken to task again, this time over an email reply to a constituent about rough sleepers in Victoria. Increasing numbers of them have been bedding down on the piazza of Westminster Cathedral off Victoria Street. Field’s constituent had informed him of her concerns. The part of his response that’s been put most firmly in the public eye are the words “magnet for undesirables”. For this, he has been charged with dehumanising vulnerable people.

Maybe Field is indeed guilty of that crime in some general sense, but does the email correspondence on which the prosecution rests its case stand up under cross-examination? Two parts of Field’s email have been reported. One is criticism by him of local charity The Passage, which he said should “take a little more responsibility for its ‘clients'”. It is apparently the charity that Field described as a “magnet for these undesirables to flood into Victoria”. The second bit quoted from Field’s email, which he copied to unnamed “Westminster Council figures” and environment secretary Michael Gove, is: “I would totally endorse every word”. This is taken to be a reference to what his constituent had written to him.

What, then, did Field agreed with so wholeheartedly? His constituent had observed that “the soup kitchens act like a magnet”, not only for “vagrants” but “also drug dealers”. She complained that, “Day in and day out, night in and night out we see the same faces sleeping rough, same voices shouting and swearing, same sleeping bags in the same places.” She wrote too of “mothers grasping their children on their way to school while loud and inappropriate discussion takes place among [the] homeless in the street,” and she observed that, “many of these problems are caused by people with mental health, alcohol and drug abuse issues who should not be there.” She added: “Many of them are not British.”

The most striking thing about this woman’s testimony is that it will ring very true to many organisations in London that try to help rough sleepers. It is true, for example, that increased activity by charities seeking to help rough sleepers in a particular spot can draw other rough sleepers to it. What else would we expect? Were I a rough sleeper it’s likely I would head their way. It is true, too, that many rough sleepers have mental health, alcohol and, yes, drug abuse problems. So when a number of possibly drug-dependent people congregate conspicuously in one place, street drug dealers might well gravitate towards them. Were I drug dealer, I might seek to service that market.

Similarly, people with those sorts of problems should indeed not be sleeping outdoors – it would be far better for them if they weren’t. Do people whose behaviour on the street is loud or erratic sometimes unnerve passer-by parents accompanying their children? Yes. And are substantial numbers of London’s rough sleepers from overseas. Yes again: for years, it has been common knowledge that foreign migrants, often from Eastern Europe, have pushed up rough sleeper numbers as their hopes of prospering in London have crumbled.

Of course, you might suspect that Field’s constituent has a less than compassionate attitude towards rough sleepers in general. You might be right – her words as published are open to that interpretation. So are those of Field. But who, exactly, does he mean by “undesirables’? Every single rough sleeper on Westminster Cathedral piazza? Only those who engage in antisocial behaviour? Might he have only been referring to drug dealers? The coverage invites the most negative reading, but the words themselves do not confirm it.

As for his criticisms of The Passage, I am told that their work, which is commissioned by Westminster Council, is primarily to do with assessing the needs of people occupying the piazza, rather than with soup runs. I’m also assured that within Westminster Council the charity is generally held to be doing a good job, including among Labour councillors. But I can also say that in the very different London borough of Newham politicians are contending with a rough sleeping problem that has much in common with that in Victoria.

Stratford shopping centre, an indoor mall close to the Olympic Park which opened in the 1970s and connects the area around Stratford station with Stratford High Street, has become a shelter for dozens of rough sleepers. It can be a rough environment too, with drug use, fights and robberies widely reported.

The council could close off this public right of way at night by issuing a public space protection order. But Newham Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz has said such a course would not “reflect the compassion and care approach that my administration is committed to when dealing with our most vulnerable”. She has instead said a “homelessness task force” will be established to “develop a long term solution to support the homelessness and rough sleeping community in Newham”.

Fiaz’s cabinet will tomorrow consider a report summarising relevant issues. It makes a number of points very much in line with those raised by Mark Field’s constituent: targeting of the mall’s rough sleepers by criminals is recognised as a menace that must be stopped; “street activity” associated with rough sleeping is acknowledged as having “negative impacts on local communities and businesses”; poor mental health and drug and alcohol dependencies are listed as contributory factors; the report states that “a high proportion of rough sleepers have non-determined immigration status” and “immigration-related problems”.

The report places emphasis on the caring values Fiaz wants observed, although it lists several collaborative interventions that are already underway. There are those in Newham Council circles who suspect there’s a can-kicking aspect to the “taskforce” approach – that it puts off taking the sort of immediate action over Stratford mall that might agitate backbenchers and local party members who think Fiaz isn’t left wing enough.

Be that as it may, the situations in Victoria and in Stratford are essentially the same, whatever the language used to characterise them and whatever interpretation journalists and others wish to place on those words: people have ended up in desperate situations for a variety of reasons, of which a lack of housing may be just one; people with good intentions seeking to help them can sometimes end up intensifying problems more than solving them; woe betide politicians who use words and actions in this policy area that enemies can seize on for the purpose of making them look mean. A case could be made that Field has fallen foul of tabloid “monstering”.

None of this is to suggest that rough sleeping isn’t a growing problem in London. Nor is it to contend that housing shortages, ravaged borough budgets and other avoidable damage to the capital’s social fabric haven’t contributed to the daily increase in people visibly lacking both accommodation in the city and the help they need with mending their lives. And it is certainly not to validate contemptuous attitudes towards some of our most desperate fellow citizens. What is does show is that reducing rough sleeping is no straightforward matter – and that to deny this from some supposed political moral high ground is to hide from the problem itself.

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