Friday, March 4, 2011

Homeless in Westminster

A few days ago after reading about the Westminster Council outlawing feeding the homeless and making it an offence to sleep rough in Westminster, I wrote  "I was Hungry and you fed me",
Today more of the press are taking up the cause and this is what The Guardian's Stephen Bullivant has to say: (
If the "big society" means anything, then Victoria on a Monday night might seem a strong contender. At around 10pm, a minibus rolls up loaded with crates of sandwiches and still-warm hard-boiled eggs, urns of tea and homemade soup, bags of fruit, and sacks of donated clothes and bedding. Also inside are three of Mother Teresa's nuns, the Missionaries of Charity, and a handful of others – university students, young professionals, retirees – drawn from across Greater London. After a short prayer, food, clothes and (perhaps most importantly) conversations are distributed to dozens of the borough's rough sleepers and most vulnerable.
This service is just one of many such volunteer-led initiatives, faith-based or not, doing what little it can to alleviate the depth of poverty and loneliness in one of the richest cities on earth. Just as Mother Teresa herself did in the slums of Kolkata, the Lambeth-based Missionaries of Charity saw a need, and responded to it. They receive few, if any, government and council grants or subsidies. Those helping them – including, I am proud to say, several of my own undergraduates – make no expenses claims. The Victoria system is, moreover, very efficient: those who need it, know when and where to come. And on other nights of the week, the same caritas (a word which, let us not forget, means "love") is provided by different groups.
Surely, this is the "new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, and social action" that the prime minister claims is his "great passion"? Yet it may also be, if members of the Tory-controlled Westminster council have their wayabout to be outlawed.
The proposed by-law would forbid a person either "to lie down or sleep in or on any public place", or "to distribute any free refreshment", within the confines of a large charitable no-go area west of Victoria station. Offenders could face fines up to £500. Lest that all seems a bit draconian, a handful of exemptions to the "distributing free refreshment" rule are mercifully proposed: these include sporting events (in case the London Marathon needs to be diverted slightly?), and businesses offering free samples of their wares (though only next to their own premises).
Westminster reportedly has the highest concentration of rough sleepers in the country. Banning them is certainly one way to make the problem go away: at least as far as the next borough. But I doubt if there are many spare hostel and sheltered housing beds in neighbouring Kensington and Chelsea. And as Victoria's dispossessed are displaced once again, what is there to stop a domino effect of councils effectively outlawing homelessness?
The justification for banning charity, meanwhile, will be familiar to all those who help, however infrequently and inadequately, the homeless. Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and even welcoming the (asylum-seeking) stranger, apparently merely encourages them. (That's the bit that Jesus forgot to mention.) Giving money to the poor keeps them in poverty. Just as it is the benefits system that creates unemployment, and not unemployment that necessitates benefit, so too – by the same callous logic – it is charity that produces homelessness, not homelessness that gives rise to charity. Yet delicious though their soup is, and pleasant company though they undoubtedly are, it is not the Missionaries of Charity who are keeping people on the streets.
According to Cameron, "We do need a social recovery to mend the broken society". Reading Westminster's proposed bylaw – a symptom of a broken society is ever there was one – I'm convinced he is right. But if that is indeed "what the big society is all about" then his fellow Tories have, as my mother would say, a funny way of showing it.

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