28 February 2011

Church appalled by 'absurd' plans to sideline homeless in Westminster

The Methodist Church has condemned plans by Westminster City Council to ban rough sleeping and soup runs for the homeless as 'disgusting' and 'absurd'.

The Council is planning to pass a by-law that that would ban rough sleeping and prohibit soup runs from operating in a designated area around Westminster Cathedral. If approved, the by-law could be in place by October.

Revd Alison Tomlin, President of the Methodist Conference, said: "Westminster Council's proposals are nothing short of disgusting. This by-law punishes people solely for their misfortune and belongs in a Victorian statute book, not in the laws of a decent 21st century community. In the 18th Century John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, described those who would punish and blame the poor for their misfortune as 'foolish and wicked'. These words seem appropriate for such an appalling piece of legislation."

Westminster has an active well informed community of volunteers and agencies who work with local and national government to help ease the homelessness problem in the area. But the Church fears that all this good work, and the many invaluable relationships between different groups and street sleepers will be torn up if these proposals go ahead.

Alison added: "These proposals rob people of their dignity. We cannot simply shuffle homeless people off our streets like an embarrassing relative that we don't want 'important' people to meet. Where are they expected to go? Will Westminster Council be offering accommodation in hotels and empty houses? To remove essential support such as soup kitchens without offering alternatives is simply absurd."

Revd Tony Miles, acting Superintendent of Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, which is located close to the proposed exclusion zone, said: "I would never support the criminalisation of rough sleeping through the implementation of what seem to be draconian measures. It is vital we care for those who are homeless and poor. An answer to the issues will only come through dialogue and addressing the root causes and not legislation. We work closely with the homeless charity 'The Passage', who believe, ultimately, street sleepers need a 'leg up' and not 'a handout'. Some churches in Westminster are opening their doors to a limited number of rough sleepers on a short-term basis. Members from the church at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, are volunteering to run one of these shelters on Friday evenings. Being a conference centre, we cannot use our church, but we can provide people to support the initiative at other venues."

Alastair Murray of Housing Justice set up the forum for Soup Runs in Central London in 2006. He believes this proposed by-law sets back the progress being made in coordinating the work of the various churches and other groups. "Westminster Council consistently denigrates the work of church volunteers and obstructs the efforts of churches and volunteer led agencies reaching out to homeless and poor people on the streets. They believe a centrally managed one size fits all service is the answer, ignoring the truth that churches often have many years of experience and expertise in responding to the needs of the poor and marginalised. Housing Justice disagrees and will oppose this by-law."

Case study: James* Story

Revd. John* writes:

"James, aged 49, sleeps behind a shop between the bins just off a main high street in East London. I chat to him when I see him and occasionally we go to where he sleeps for some more privacy and pray. He won't come to the church - I think he doesn't feel he will fit in or may even be ashamed of how he now appears. James lost his job with a small engineering firm 3-4 months ago due to cut backs. He then split up with his partner and lost his home. As he is single and without dependent children he is not a priority to be housed.

"Three Sundays ago James looked to be in worse health than usual. We talked for a while when I was on the way to do a Church service and we arranged to meet and pray after the service in his bedding down place. He was clearly sick, and I prayed a wordy prayer for healing and for his circumstances to get better. James thanked me and then said all of a sudden in frustration that I had prayed for the wrong thing and it was 's**t'. He dropped to his knees and prayed with real passion and sincerity that when he got sicker he would be ill enough that they couldn't send him back on the streets. He prayed to have a severe and incurable illness, as to him it looked like the only way out of his plight."

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.  

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