Homelessness crisis: council urged to act over ‘increase in rough sleeping and begging’
Leader claims ‘persuading’ people to move off the street and into hostels or night shelters is a major problem
03 December, 2018 — By Tom Foot
MP Karen Buck addresses the meeting as Nickie Aiken and John Zamit look on
TWO homeless people who died this year in Westminster had chosen a life on the street, the leader of the council told a packed meeting of the South East Bayswater Residents’ Association (Sebra) on Monday night.
Nickie Aiken was asked at the meeting in Porchester Hall about what the council was doing to tackle an “increase in rough sleeping and begging” in the borough.
Cllr Aiken said a major problem was “persuading” homeless people to move off the street and into hostels or night shelters.
She said: “We have had, sadly, a couple of deaths in Westminster over the last year of rough sleepers. The first one was very publicised, by Westminster tube.
“The person who sadly died had a place to sleep, in a hostel in Lambeth – he chose not to use it.
“Another man who died recently, a Bulgarian, had been on the street for two years. We had tried everything. He didn’t want to move.”
In February a Portuguese man was found dead in Westminster tube station, just a few steps from the underground entrance to the Houses of Parliament.
The 35-year-old, Marcos Amaral Gourgel, was reportedly a regular at an emergency shelter run by homelessness charity The Connection.
The packed meeting in Porchester Hall
She added: “It is not illegal to rough sleep. It is illegal to beg, but it is up to the police to move them on. The council has no power for that. I have done a lot of talking and lobbying on this, it is the laws that need changing.
“There is a bed for rough sleepers in Westminster. We have 400 beds available each night. Even when the ‘beast from the east’ was going on, and we had 200 extra beds, we couldn’t persuade very many people to come inside, because they have entrenched issues… It is a difficult conversation to have.”
Cllr Aiken added: “This is one of my great passions, getting people off the streets.
“To me they are the most vulnerable people in society. They do not have a voice.
“We need to make sure they are protected and helped to turn their lives around. The reasons they find themselves on the streets are so complicated.
“Only around 5 per cent are Westminster residents. We are home to rough sleepers from across the globe.
She added: “Some are very desperate, the vast majority have drink and drug issues. The worst you can do is give them money.”
There was a question from the floor about whether the council could use health and safety regulations to move homeless people away.
Mark Field: ‘I hope we can get together’
Westminster North Labour MP Karen Buck told the meeting: “Why has it got worse again? It was possible to find places for these people until seven to eight years ago. Until the government makes change in terms of access to housing, and support with private rent, we are not going to get very far with dealing with this problem.”
The annual meeting also heard questions about the big issue of a proposed coach station in Lancaster Gate and the “squalid” appearance of Queensway.
There was strong criticism of the council for its contractor Veolia not paying street sweepers a London Living Wage, unlike neighbouring boroughs.
Cllr Aiken said: “It’s about funding. We have to make choices, tough choices. These guys and women, work outstandingly. They have such passion for it – they do it with such pride. I’m delighted we have such great street cleaners.”
Sebra chairman John Zamit said: “My understanding is that the good sweepers that you are paying for out of my council tax… you are not paying them a reasonable amount.”
When asked what their dreams were for the future, the panel spoke about bringing an end to Brexit “one way or another”.
Remainer, Cities of London and Westminster MP Mark Field, a Conservative minister, told the room that he appreciated prime minister Theresa May’s “resilience”, adding: “I hope we can get together.”
Ms Buck agreed that Brexit was “consuming everything we have” and said she had a dream “that the country would be persuaded not to leave”.
Cllr Aiken said: “Whatever happens with Brexit, I just want it all to end. I want to get on with doing things that we really want to do.”