Posted by: Isabel Hardman18/03/2011
Daniel Astaire, cabinet member for society, families and adult services at Westminster Council, defends his plans to stop soup runs.
We are committed to transforming the lives of rough sleepers and helping them to return to independent living. Indeed, every year we help more than 1,000 rough sleepers off the streets.
This is achieved through the extensive work done to address the complex needs of rough sleepers including drug and alcohol abuse services, initiatives to reconnect them with family members, counselling, literacy courses, training for employment and accommodation.
We of course share the concerns of others for the vulnerability of rough sleepers but no-one ends up sleeping rough simply because they are hungry: their needs run much deeper. Our experience built up over many years tells us that soup runs keep people on the streets rather than helping them off.
This is not just our view but is also shared by many leading homeless charities including Thames Reach, Look Ahead Housing and Care, Novas Scarman, the English Churches Housing Group as well as former rough sleeper and Big Issue founder John Bird.
This is why we are committed to bringing people indoors where they can access support from social services or medical assistance to help turn their lives around. In contrast, offering food to someone who is on the street might help convince them to stay out another night, a lifestyle that damages health and can in some cases lead to a premature death.
Even worse though, we see former rough sleepers in the first stage of adapting to life in accommodation tempted back onto the street by soup runs, who then choose to bed down for the night, rather than return home.
Thanks to the commitment and hard work of our outreach teams, the number of rough sleepers in Westminster has declined from over 300 a few years ago to around 100 now. But despite this there are still approximately 50 soup runs coming into central London on a regular basis. They in turn attract homeless people from across the city who would be better off accessing public and voluntary sector services within their own communities.
Following years of talks, we have now decided that we have no choice but to look to prohibit soup runs and rough sleepers in one particular part of Westminster, in and around the Westminster Cathedral piazza area near Victoria Station. This area has long been a magnet for soup runs with many travelling from across the capital and even outside of London.
To tackle this we have launched a consultation with residents, businesses, local day centres and hostels and the voluntary sector. Depending on the results, we will then seek provisional permission from the Communities and Local Government department to pass a byelaw before taking it to a meeting of the full council in the summer.
Let me stress though, no-one will be left to starve on the streets. We spend £9 million a year on services for rough sleepers – more than any other council in the UK – and we have the two largest day centres in Europe offering heavily discounted food, washing and laundry facilities, clothes, doctors, dentists and mental health services. We also have 1,000 hostel spaces so there is no need for anyone to sleep rough in the city.
Of course, those who give up their time to help people who need food should be applauded, but we believe they can make a far better impact if they look for other ways to help the homeless and put their energy to good use, without delivering food on the streets. We are prepared to help individuals and organisations fulfil that goal.
Finally, we would like to emphasise that our proposals are at the consultation stage and we are encouraging people to make their voices hear. At this stage we still hope to be able to work with soup run providers to reach a solution that is right for all parties without the need for any formal legislation.
This is a response to a blog by Nicky Gavron, Labour London assembly member.
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