The byelaw (part six)

(sorry this post was done on my mobile)

As previously mentioned on twitter and this blog, the soup runs that offer clothing are targeted by individuals and organised gangs collecting things for street trading.

One of the biggest arguments put forward in support of the soup runs is that they offer vital social contact with isolated and vulnerable people. There are a few problems with this argument. Firstly most of the soup runs serve too many people for this to be genuinely the case. Secondly many of the soup runs are so busy and disorienting that they can feel very offputting and make one feel even more isolated and alone (think for a moment how you would feel as someone new to the streets standing alone and penniless among a crowd of strangers, on a cold, wet street corner waiting for a sandwich that may or may not arrive and whether that would make you feel conducive towards forming social bonds). Most importantly, though, I feel that this aspect is overemphasised. We’re normal people. You’re simply strangers that we might engage in a short conversation. It’s like talking to a stranger at a bus stop; you might open up and share a moment but the most you’re going to think about it afterwards is ‘what a nice person that was’ and then forget about it. Homeless people do have social contacts – each other. That is genuine social engagement. The purpose of soup runs is to engage us with services, not (though it might potentially happen much later down the line) to form profound friendships. Social engagement is not somehow more meaningful between you ‘normal’ folk and us than the contact we have among ourselves; in fact, it’s a good deal more superficial.

I keep reading ‘no-one sleeps on the streets for a free sandwich’ but to keep saying that is to spectacularly miss the point. Of course people don’t come out on the streets because there is free food. When you first become homeless you go cold and hungry and you’ll do anything to get back inside again, by making every effort to secure accommodation through engaging with services. But when you connect in to the system of soup runs and the large communities of rough sleepers in the major urban centres, you suddenly lose that impetus to take action. It makes the clock stop ticking. Suddenly nothing is quite so urgent. There will undoubtedly be a multitude of small and large problems that need tackling in your life, as well as practical issues to resolve. Any one of these issues on their own would be hard enough to deal with, but, taken together, it is easy to develop an attitude of ‘maybe tomorrow’ which before you know it causes someone to become entrenched on the streets. It is difficult to achieve a balance of sustaining someone’s most basic needs without allowing them to become too comfortable to maintain the momentum for change. Certainly at the present moment the balance is too much on the side of sustaining life on the streets.

However, although people don’t become homeless for a free sandwich, if they are homeless (and know the system well) they will migrate to congregate in the areas where the soup runs are most plentiful. Most of the people at the soup runs are not from London but, if they know about what’s on offer here, they will routinely hop on a bus or train and expect westminster services to sort out the problem rather than their home area because, as they say, it’s ‘easy’ to be homeless in London and a good deal more difficult elsewhere.

That’s enough to be going on with. There are some other points in my previous blog about the soup runs that I did last year and there are points that have been raised by other people but these are my main ones.

I want to talk next about the rough sleeping part of the byelaw.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The byelaw (part five)

One of the arguments that keeps being brought up against the soup runs closing is that it will lead to the homeless having to steal food and this will have a big impact on the businesses that operate in Westminster.  They’re basically trying to sell the argument that Westminster should let people sleep rough and eat free food on the streets in large crowds because if they aren’t allowed to do it they’ll rob you.  That’s meant to convince the residents of Victoria to support them!!!!  There are a number of problems with this argument.  Firstly, most homeless are not criminals and if they genuinely had no money or access to food they would prefer to go hungry.  Secondly, most homeless have access to benefits.  Thirdly, the daycentres and daytime soup kitchens provide plenty of free or cheap food so that it is possible for every rough sleeper, if so minded, to get a couple of meals and plenty of hot drinks during the day from various venues in inner London so at the very least you won’t starve.  Most importantly the argument falls down on its main point because, by removing the soup runs, shoplifting will actually FALL.  I can tell you for a fact that a significant number of people who come to the soup runs collect some food and then go and rob some alcohol from the off-licence or supermarket or they get tired waiting for the food to show up on a cold night and then just go and rob a sandwich instead.  I’m not making this up!  Remove the crowds and shoplifting will fall.  Don’t believe me?  Ask around.  Ask the supermarkets whether they would prefer the occasional loss of a sandwich over a couple of crates of beer?  Ask them what they are currently losing on a daily basis.

There is plenty of other food available during the daytime (the potential problems lie in evening and morning provision).  “No-one goes hungry in London.”  That’s our saying on the streets and why people come to Westminster from elsewhere.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The byelaw (part four)

The next point is a difficult one that people might disagree with strongly but I think is really important.  It’s to do with the status of homeless people and the way that sometimes acts of charity can reinforce their sense of hopelessness and otherness.  Whatever a person’s individual reasons for being on the street, you can be sure that it has been the final act in a series of problems in their life.  Those problems will probably mean that they have had a great deal of contact with government services by that point, be it the NHS, prisons, the care system, social services or whatever.  They will have a sense of being out of control of their destiny and, though I have never ever met a person who actively wants to live on the streets, I have met many (myself included) who passively accept the situation because it offers the path of least resistance (please in future drop all reference to rough sleeping being a lifestyle choice because it’s total and utter BS).  Even if the person has had no part to play in becoming homeless and is entirely blameless, the fact of the matter is this: that it is only through an active engagement on their own part with homeless services, and an acceptance that their future lies in them taking ownership of the fact that life will not simply get better in time but will only get better when they take steps to make it better, that their lives will improve.  Many rough sleepers have suffered psychological, physical and sexual abuse in their lifetimes that has led them to feel apart from others and so there is some sense of consolation in isolating themselves on the street along with others whom they feel “understand” their situation.  The system of soup runs plays along with and reinforces this sense of otherness and inferiority.  They play up to the sentiment of there is nothing worse in the world than having to sleep rough, and over time most people start to believe it and that they are somehow a class apart.

For example, as people who read my tweets regularly know, any money I get given by members of the public I donate to charity.  I constantly have to respond to outcry from other homeless people (I’m open about the fact I donate the money to charity) and from other people online who say my situation is dire and I should put the money towards something I need.  No.  They are absolutely and unequivocally wrong.  I am the same as everyone else.  I am an equal member of society.  If I start to think that I truly am part of a hopelessly downtrodden underclass, who knows what else I might start to think about myself.  I have to maintain a little hope.  I want to access services with the sense that they are public services that I am entitled to use just like any other, in the same way I feel perfectly entitled to sit in a public park or borrow a book from a library, because this gives me ownership.  But if the services I access are run in such a way that I am made to feel I can only be grateful and am unable to complain or have any input into how they operate (and right now rough sleepers are unhappy with how the soup runs operate), it reinforces my sense of lack of control over the situation.  I do not want to start thinking that I am so far beneath other people that it is okay to rely on them indefinitely for my everyday needs.  I want to see light at the end of the tunnel.  Acts of charity that are open-ended do not restore people’s sense of hope.  They reinforce their sense of otherness.  Charity and handouts should be about saying right now you need a helping hand to get you back up so that you can move on with your life because at times we all need help like that.  The moving on with life part is essential.  It’s about restoration.  Most soup runs do not actively engage people with this crucial aspect (though it can be done).

This point has become ever more important to me during my time on the street because everyday I see brought low the dignity and confidence of men and women whom I believe are perfectly capable, with the right support, of leading full and active lives but who don’t believe themselves capable because no-one else is telling them it’s true.  It’s very upsetting to witness.

[And when we have a situation where some organisers of the soup runs are actively advising rough sleepers not to cooperate with services instead of advising them how best to navigate them, then some homeless are threatened with an even worse outcome to the above.]

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The byelaw (part three)

[Small point – I missed two locations for soup runs.  Sunday under waterloo bridge north side – two soup runs come at lunchtime.  Waterloo bridge south side Wednesday about 8pm.  There are other groups that go to the waterloo area but I tend not to use them and many of them are there as part of a multi-stop soup run that also comes to the Strand or Lincoln’s Inn Fields.]

The problem with saying that the soup runs can self-regulate to mitigate these factors is that this has been shown in the past not to be achievable.  Housing Justice have admitted that overtures have previously been made to some of the groups not already involved in the Soup Run Forum and many had bluntly responded they didn’t wish to coordinate and they simply preferred to do their own thing.  Of course one of the reasons for this is that many of the groups are not Christian and may not wish to be part of an umbrella organisation that is.  The LSE report says that although attempts to reduce the number of soup runs have previously been successful for short periods of time in the past, it has always been followed by a subsequent steady climb in numbers, particularly from groups attending sporadically and originating from outer London.

There are some issues that have been raised that I don’t think are actually a significant problem and others that are far more pressing that haven’t been mentioned at all.  Food quality standards and hygiene are frequently cited as a potential problem.  I can say that, although the actual quality of food is variable, hygiene isn’t a major issue (there is one group that I had a particular problem with but I have already mentioned it to them and they said it is being dealt with).  Food quality is generally pretty good but lacks variety.  By this I don’t mean variety in flavour but rather in nutritional content.  There is a tendency to provide carbohydrate-heavy meals (even vegetarian dishes, though they don’t have meat, also rarely provide much in the way of vegetable content).  The need to provide food that meets nutritional standards should not be overlooked as of primary importance because a balanced diet is at the core of good mental and physical health, particularly when so many on the streets have compromised health from alcohol and drug addictions.  Obviously there is a cost factor here but if the soup runs undertook to coordinate provision so that they each took responsibility for one meal per week, fortnight or month they could operate without increasing their current budget.  [A side point – most of the sandwiches handed out on the street are from Pret and Eat – most homeless I have spoken to prefer home-made plainer sandwiches: firstly, because most rough sleepers have terrible teeth and, secondly, because they keep better – the mayonnaise on shop sandwiches makes them soggy and inedible within a couple of hours.  There has to be a better way of distributing these sandwiches so they get to people who are going to enjoy them more – there are currently far too many being handed out on the street to all get eaten.]

Another issue with the soup runs is that many of the volunteers possess views that most would regard as objectionable to say the least.  My transgender friend has suffered abusive comments at some soup runs; I have had people criticise my religion after I told them what it is; and I have personally been handed leaflets indicating that I am on the streets because I have “turned away from God” and am “on the path to hell” and that I am responsible for being on the streets but they are able to “save” me.  I am actually a tolerant person so it doesn’t upset me when people have quite extreme views but I am a white, teetotal, non-drug taking, non-smoking, politely spoken Englishwoman and I have experienced things like this, so can you imagine what people are being told who prove more “challenging” in their presentation?  It is easy to envisage that someone could (out of their – let’s be generous – naïveté) provoke an argument with a homeless person over such a point and cause that homeless person to become highly distressed or even to hit them (leading to further exclusion and punishment).  There is a tendency when interactions are taking place outside – and unobserved – for people to be less guarded in the way they talk and act.  Coming inside should, one would hope, have a profound effect on the way some of these groups operate and present their views to the homeless.  (I don’t think there is a need for any group to be excluded from the discussions taking place.  Everyone should be given a chance to show that they can operate in a way that is respectful.)

Many of the people living on the streets are (or should be) registered disabled.  They deserve to eat on a chair.

There is so much food handed out on the street that a very large proportion of it gets chucked away.  I see it everyday and have blogged about it regularly in the past.

Coming up – crime and concept of charity.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The byelaw (part two)

The most pressing concern is to separate out the issues.

There are two parts to the byelaw: the banning of the distribution of food and the banning of sleeping or lying down in a certain defined area of Westminster. Although, in some respects there is a natural linkage between the two, initially I want to divide them up.

Soup Runs

I’ve talked about the pros and cons of soup runs before and I don’t want to duplicate. I’m not writing this to be definitive of the issues but merely to spark a debate that has so far failed to ignite.

Who uses the soup runs?
There is agreement that most people who access the soup runs are not rough sleeping at that moment in time. In my experience, depending on the day of the week, the time of day and the location of the soup run there is considerable variation in the answer. This is a very rough analysis: Lincoln’s Inn Fields – evenings only, seven days a week from 7pm to 10.30pm – mainly regular groups (almost no rough sleepers Monday to Thursday, a few more but still forming a small minority Friday to Sunday when it operates near LSE. Most of the attendees I have talked to are permanently housed, some from squats, some from hostels); Strand – several mornings a week (7.30 ish) and every evening (7pm to 10/11pm although there is one group that comes fortnightly at midnight on a Thursday) – mornings are mostly regular groups, evenings a mixture with mainly regular groups and some who turn up occasionally or make a one-off drop of food on pavement (quite a few rough sleepers, a lot of people who have just accessed or are waiting to access the daycentre or nightshelter. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays the numbers swell considerably with the permanently housed and people from hostels coming to take advantage of the high concentration of runs offering hot food, most of which is boxed up for carrying away); Temple – evenings during the week about 7.30pm (split more equally between rough sleepers and the housed); Victoria several soup runs from 8pm to 10.30pm (similar in makeup to the Strand – in fact many of the people who go to the Strand also come here – and lots of people coming out of the cluster of hostels located in the immediate area – there is a considerably higher proportion of A10s using the soup runs here and that is one of the reasons that it has fallen out of favour with many of the British and Irish). There are other locations – Adam Street, Australian Embassy, Maltravers Street, and a couple of locations in Covent Garden that attract smallish numbers (though Maltravers Street – Simon Community two evenings a week – gets quite a crowd and so does Adam Street for the Chocolate Run Monday 9.30pm). The general rule of thumb is:
Early morning: almost all rough sleepers (apart from Strand which is affected by its location with consequent arrivals to daycentre and departures from nightshelter at that time)
Daytime: most people access daycentres and indoor soup kitchens for food and drink
Nighttime: mostly non-homeless

Does it matter that rough sleepers are being served alongside people who have permanent housing?
I think most soup runs are now aware that this is the case and they say it doesn’t affect their operation as they are willing to offer their service to anyone who feels the need for it. However, from the point of view of the rough sleepers it matters a very great deal. There is incredible resentment amongst the homeless at being served alongside people in permanent housing, particularly as so many of them are facing barriers in being housed themselves. I know of people that won’t attend the soup runs because they find the atmosphere intimidating. One of the biggest arguments that Housing Justice gives in their defence is that the soup runs are a vital system of support for engaging with rough sleepers and helping them connect to mainstream services. I can say for a fact that this very rarely happens. Only a very small handful of runs operate in this way. From my own point of view, ASLAN is the only soup run where volunteers have ever engaged me in conversation in my own right. There are others where people have said “Hello, how are you” in an exchange of pleasantries or where I have joined in a conversation between volunteers and other soup run attendees. Are the volunteers making value judgments about me that they are not qualified to make, is it that they scared of engaging with women, is it that they find it easier speaking to people from similar backgrounds to themselves? Whatever the reason for it, it negates the argument that they are operating an effective outreach system when they exclude in this way. I have heard of other exceptions – the Simon Community late night run where they take sandwiches and hot drinks round to rough sleepers who are already bedded down is spoken highly of by many and so is the late night Thursday run that operates on a fortnightly basis on the Strand at about midnight. There are probably others but, as I say, they form a small minority. Engagement seems to be much higher with the indoor soup kitchens where you have a chance to sit down for several hours, relax and open up.

The other major problem with the big soup runs that serve large crowds (in some cases over 200 people!) is that they take a long time to set up. That is time that you have to be standing around in the cold waiting. For someone who has just popped out from their warm home it doesn’t matter so much but for someone who has to stand around for a long time, causing their body temperature to drop, and then has to spend the rest of the night out on the streets it is extremely uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. This is the reason why I stopped attending most soup runs over the recent cold snap.

Another consideration is the bigger the crowd (and remember the bigger the crowd the less likely they are to be homeless) the more likely that fights will start and the security situation will deteriorate. It doesn’t happen every night but it happens enough to be a real problem. I haven’t ever seen a member of the public be involved in these skirmishes but I have seen other homeless get attacked (including suffering homophobic assaults and abuse) and I have seen and heard of volunteers being knocked over or hit.

Part three to follow…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The byelaw (part one)

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.]

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The fight

I am typing this on my phone so please forgive succinctness and spelling/grammar mistakes.

The basic details are this:

I was in the shower at daycentre (there are two women’s showers). I had been feeling very down and tearful because of the attack at the weekend. Someone entered the second stall and sounded like they were sitting down and they started singing in a foreign language. The women’s toilet block is usually lovely and peaceful because there are so few women. It annoyed me but I thought it’s not so weird to whistle a tune as you get undressed for the shower. But she started to get louder and she kept going. My thoughts were fully occupied with other events and I found this very intrusive. Eventually I snapped and told her to shut up. She didn’t even miss a beat. She started shouting back ‘who are you? You’re crazy british. Why don’t you go home?’

I said ‘if you hadn’t noticed, this is a homeless daycentre. It’s for people who don’t have homes.’ she kept repeating ‘go home. Go home.’ then she said she wanted to see who I was and stood outside my shower cubicle whilst I finished showering and getting dressed. I wasn’t nervous but I was in no mood for a fight with anyone and I hoped she’d just go away.

When I came out I noticed it was the greek woman I had talked to a couple of days ago. She has only been in the country for a month but she has been living in the night shelter (which annoys me greatly – like I said before british from the regions are turned away and told to go back where they come from but many europeans are allowed to stay there despite having no recourse to public funds. There seems to be no consistency.) i’d got annoyed with her a couple of days previously because she had suggested that if you were stubborn enough you could access the social system in the uk because they didn’t send everyone home.

So anyway she asked me why I had a problem with her. I said it wasn’t right that she should be using these expensive resources if she claimed there was nothing wrong with her. It was the height of arrogance to turn up in another country and expect someone else to pay for you to live there. It was wrong. I told her to go back to her country. Then she said in fact the british shouldn’t be allowed to use the daycentre because they were all crazy and wanted to be homeless and in fact the europeans should be the only ones allowed to use it because they used it properly to get a job, somewhere to live and move on. I said but she didn’t get it, she should be doing that on her own – this place is to help people with real problems.

Then she started off again. Go home, go home, etc and I started to get upset because of course I have nowhere to go. Then she started calling me crazy and telling me I should see a doctor. I told her to stop talking to me as I didn’t want to talk to her but she wouldn’t shut up. She kept going on about me and the british being crazy and wanting to be homeless.

This was the point I stood up (i’d been putting on my shoes) and went to hit her. I was capable of walking away and getting help from staff so I can’t claim that as an excuse. I went to slap her across the face. She deflected my hand and I ended up slapping her arm instead. Then she grabbed my wrists and held me tightly. ‘you think i’m something but i’m not what you think’ she said and then hit me in the stomach (not that hard – she pulled it). She pushed me against the wall and kept telling me over and over to see a doctor so I went crazy and tried to punch her. She is much taller than me and I wasn’t able to land a blow because my arms simply didn’t reach. I was shouting at her to go away, to get out. Then the staff came in. They said we both had to come out. I said no she had to leave and tried to push her out the door. Eventually she said she was going to leave.  She went back into the cubicle and removed her things and three cups of coffee – she hadn’t been going to take a shower – she was just sitting in the changing area drinking coffee.

Then as I said I started crying and a nice member of staff came and talked to me and told me I was barred and I admitted I had been on edge since being attacked. She gave me 10 minutes to compose myself and this is when I overheard the staff talking about me and saying there was nothing they could do to help me.

I don’t know what she told them happened but as you know I got barred for six weeks.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment