The Soup Kitchen Dilemma

Concern about rough sleepers and the homeless has featured strongly in my constituency postbag ever since I entered Parliament in 2001. 

Initially I was made aware of the valuable work done in reducing the numbers of rough sleepers in Westminster due to a managed approach from Westminster Council, the Metropolitan Police, various homeless charities and other agencies. In 2002 I wrote that one of the successes had been the Salvation Army Soup and Clothing Run co-ordination Project. This was started in July 2000 under the watchful eye of the Government’s Rough Sleepers Unit (RSU) which had been charged with the task of reducing rough sleeping in London by two-thirds by March 2002.

After some initial success the government appears to have run out of ideas over the issue of rough sleepers in the face of the recent massive influx of people from Eastern Europe since the EU enlargement of May 2004 some of whom are arriving with little money and resources and end up having to sleep rough on the streets of central London. These compare unfavourably with the arrival to these shores of hard-working, committed, law-abiding men and women who are willing and able to contribute to skilled, unskilled and semi-skilled employment in catering, construction, leisure and the hospitality industries, to name but a few. These dedicated people have clearly been a great boost to the United Kingdom’s economy. Indeed, without such an influx, the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s frequent boasts about strong and continuous economic growth would be somewhat muted.

In the run-up to the EU enlargement I and my local authority, Westminster City Council, warned repeatedly of the increased dangers of jobless and unqualified nationals from the new EU accession countries ending up sleeping rough on the streets and adding to instability as well as fuelling crime and antisocial behaviour.

This has now happened and a crisis is occurring amongst residents of central London who see a largely mismanaged provisions service literally encouraging people to be on the streets at ungodly hours because free soup and other foodstuffs are being handed out by different groups, many of which do not know that some rough sleepers were only fed an hour before by another charity operation. John Bird, founder of the Big Issue, is among those who believe that, in some cases, handouts do more harm than good and certainly there is much to be concerned about in the escalation of soup runs in central London today.

It is chaos out on the night streets of Westminster and we need urgently to reign in the charities because they are creating a structured lifestyle for street sleepers which is completely opposite to the fundamental task set up by government of getting people re-housed and into employment.

Soup kitchens are only part of the tale. The requirements of new foreign rough sleepers are much higher than many of the British men who often choose a life of street sleeping for independence and avoiding social contact. 

I spoke in the House recently in a debate on A8 nationals?for those unaware of that term – it refers to people from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia and the impact that such large numbers of visitors/immigrants from these countries has had and are continuing to have on social and health services. Naturally, those concerns have been compounded by the recent accession to the EU at the beginning of January of Bulgaria and Romania, the A2 nations, which have a total population of 35 million. Recently some A2 families?not simply young men or women who were seeking work?pitched up at Charing Cross police station demanding accommodation. It is difficult to see how agencies can cope without further resources but the situation is made worse by the encouragement given to people to sleep rough in the area. 

Begging has increased, often by the very people who are “fuelled” at night. Five of the six people arrested recently in the Victoria area for persistent begging were from Romania.

Needless to say it is central London?the most cosmopolitan melting pot in the country?that faces the greatest burden to its social services since the arrival of so many A8 and A2 nationals. That is particularly acute in relation to Romanians, for whom, unlike for Poles and Lithuanians, there is no significant settled UK community outside London. I should also stress at this juncture that the substantial increased workload has not lain exclusively on the shoulders of our local councils.

Recently I had the opportunity of speaking at great length with Sister Ellen Flynn, the chief executive of The Passage, which is an institution that proudly proclaims that it has helped homeless people since 1980. That charity in Victoria, which is sponsored predominantly by the Roman Catholic Church, has provided for the less fortunate in our society since the 1860s. The Passage works alongside central Government in trying to give a hand-up to those in need with a view to ensuring that the homeless for whom it cares can return rapidly to a self-sufficient life, reliant neither on the state nor charitable giving. It is an organisation that is only a stone’s throw from Westminster cathedral and only a five-minute walk from Victoria coach station, the preferred destination of many from Poland and Lithuania, and it has become under increasing pressure over the past three years. Naturally, neither The Passage, other charities nor Westminster city council are in a position simply to turn away those vulnerable A8 nationals who arrive in the country unable to support themselves but the situation is becoming impossible for all the agencies combined to cope with the influx,

For almost three years, we have seen up to 2,000 A8 nationals arriving every week into Victoria coach station. Many?the great majority?have friends and relatives in London, and many come with assured accommodation and with employment sorted out. However, a small and sizeable minority arrive without any means of support. Inevitably, many are from the most vulnerable groups and their personal, physical and mental capacities have a tendency quickly to deteriorate. They sleep on the streets, as they have no income, they tend either to beg or steal, and quickly become engaged in alcohol-fuelled assault and violence. They often seek food from the soup runs in large numbers, which also causes a rapid diminution in the quality of life of the local residential community as a result of aspects of their antisocial behaviour.

The law prevents nationals from A8 accession states from accessing benefits provided by local authorities to residents, as well as state benefits such as income support, shelter and drug treatment services. That has exacerbated the likelihood of A8 nationals descending into street life, as they have no other means of support. I know from my own experience that homelessness agencies are swamped, and the feedback that I receive from them shows that the failure of the Department for Work and Pensions to facilitate access to employment services has worsened the plight of those vulnerable people.

An overview of the current situation makes for depressing reading. Towards the end of 2006, a detailed and comprehensive count of rough sleepers in Westminster revealed that nearly one in two was A8 nationals. That demonstrates an alarming trend in the number of A8 nationals living on our streets.

Voluntary homelessness organisations are at breaking point because they have been inundated with requests for assistance and sustenance, leaving them less able to meet the needs of what might be described as their core client group. Many of those organisations have a range of support issues and they do not receive public funds. Sadly I find that many local homelessness agencies have been forced to withdraw services from new arrivals from the accession states whom they deem to be not vulnerable. Given that the majority of arrivals are fit young men, very few qualify for support.

Westminster City Council works incredibly hard to tackle the needs of new arrivals, and over the past year, via funding secured from the Home Office under the invest-to-save scheme, it has managed to prevent nearly 400 A8 nationals from slipping into long-term rough sleeping. That increased funding allowed a secondee from the Department for Work and Pensions to be employed, who assisted more than 100 individuals in securing work. As a result, additional police community support officers were able to assist the existing police team in reducing the antisocial and criminal activities associated with rough sleeping.

In 2002 I was able to say that there was no reason for anyone to be sleeping rough in central London. The support was there for those who had been on the streets but, five years on, there is a heavy price to be paid by local residents simply because the current levels of rough sleepers have increased so dramatically.

London and the South East is naturally bearing the brunt of the homeless people but this is also the area with most severe pressure on housing. It is not an equation which can be resolved quickly, if at all.

We want to encourage people off the streets and take up the services and support that are available but the task is being made far harder by the well-intentioned but hopelessly under managed charities who are giving succour to the homeless on the streets of central London. 

I believe that the uncoordinated charitable operation of soup kitchens ? all, I repeat, with the best intentions at heart -is hindering rough sleepers from seeking new opportunities. The impact of keeping and encouraging people to remain here on the streets of central London is building up a powder keg of problems for local social services and local NHS services. We have to deter people from coming to this country in the hope of “finding London streets paved with gold” when the truth is at best “late-night soup while sleeping rough in the Capital.”