I think it is safe to say by now that no real debate is going to come about in relation to the proposed byelaw banning soup runs from operating in a small area of Westminster and additionally to lying down and rough sleeping in public places in the same area. This disappoints me greatly but it is not a big surprise. I attended the meeting of the Soup Run Forum when they met to plan their response to the consultation and it was clear that there was not going to be any engagement with the views of the other side and that simply their position would remain rigidly against the byelaw. As I discussed with other people after the meeting (homeless friends and people working in the homeless sector), I hadn’t wanted to get involved in the debate at all really because I am just one person and I believed the agencies and individuals concerned would conduct the debate in a professional and considerate way, at all times putting the needs of the homeless like myself first. However, the meeting left me feeling quite angry. A couple of very highly regarded charities had offered some support to the byelaw; not 100% support for its wording – particularly in relation to the rough sleeping aspect – but a tentative backing for the principle that soup runs were an outdated concept and they would instead welcome the involvement of the people currently running them in new ways of operating to offer more constructive and targeted assistance to helping people escape life on the streets. The main thrust of people’s views at the Forum – and I say this having thought long and hard about how to phrase this as delicately as possible – was that the byelaw is above all else a violation of “their right” to feed the homeless on the streets. It does not seem to matter that there is starting to develop quite a considerable consensus among the many homeless organisations that – well meaning though these people’s actions may be – it is interfering with their own work (the work of professional agencies – that is organisations that have to work to professional guidelines, whose work is monitored, who have to meet relevant targets and outcomes, whose staff have been vetted and trained and, most importantly, who can be called to account if they fail to attain these standards). I now feel I must speak up. I know there has been some considerable criticism of me by some of the charities that organise soup runs. I am willing to take that criticism even though I am obviously not on the best of form at the moment. The reasons that fortify me in doing so are that I know I represent some of the feelings of the street homeless (I will point out where this is the case below); where I don’t represent the feelings of other homeless I am genuinely trying to think of our best long-term interests; and finally because I happen to think that one of the people who has taken the most stick over this debate (i.e. Jeremy Swain of Thames Reach) is a good man who doesn’t deserve to have his name blighted in this systematic way by the campaign (and let’s not pretend the media campaign is anything other than systematic and organised). If you actually read his position (and that of St Mungos and others) on this, you’d recognise straightaway that it is rather more nuanced than it is being made out to be. I admire his courage and seeing as I am someone whose confidence has taken quite enough battering at the hands of bullies over the last several decades, his courage in taking a stand has instilled in me a sense that there are people out there who think the way I do and still go on to make a success of their lives and to have a positive impact on the lives of others.
[This isn’t going to be one long negative diatribe by the way. I want to offer up some acknowledgement of the positive work that is being done already and that can be expanded upon.]