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

The Methodist Church has condemned plans by Westminster CityCouncil 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 roughsleeping and prohibit soup runs from operating in a designated areaaround Westminster Cathedral. If approved, the by-law could be inplace 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 belongsin a Victorian statute book, not in the laws of a decent 21stcentury community. In the 18th Century John Wesley, the founder ofthe Methodist Church, described those who would punish and blamethe poor for their misfortune as 'foolish and wicked'. These wordsseem appropriate for such an appalling piece of legislation."

Westminster has an active well informed community of volunteers andagencies who work with local and national government to help easethe homelessness problem in the area. But the Church fears that allthis good work, and the many invaluable relationships betweendifferent groups and street sleepers will be torn up if theseproposals go ahead.

Alison added: "These proposals rob people of their dignity. Wecannot simply shuffle homeless people off our streets like anembarrassing relative that we don't want 'important' people tomeet. Where are they expected to go? Will Westminster Council beoffering accommodation in hotels and empty houses? To removeessential support such as soup kitchens without offeringalternatives 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 sleepingthrough the implementation of what seem to be draconian measures.It is vital we care for those who are homeless and poor. An answerto the issues will only come through dialogue and addressing theroot causes and not legislation. We work closely with the homelesscharity 'The Passage', who believe, ultimately, street sleepersneed a 'leg up' and not 'a handout'. Some churches in Westminsterare opening their doors to a limited number of rough sleepers on ashort-term basis. Members from the church at Methodist CentralHall, Westminster, are volunteering to run one of these shelters onFriday evenings. Being a conference centre, we cannot use ourchurch, but we can provide people to support the initiative atother venues."

Alastair Murray of Housing Justice set up the forum for Soup Runsin Central London in 2006. He believes this proposed by-law setsback the progress being made in coordinating the work of thevarious churches and other groups. "Westminster Councilconsistently denigrates the work of church volunteers and obstructsthe efforts of churches and volunteer led agencies reaching out tohomeless and poor people on the streets. They believe a centrallymanaged one size fits all service is the answer, ignoring the truththat churches often have many years of experience and expertise inresponding to the needs of the poor and marginalised. HousingJustice 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 amain high street in East London. I chat to him when I see him andoccasionally we go to where he sleeps for some more privacy andpray. He won't come to the church - I think he doesn't feel he willfit in or may even be ashamed of how he now appears. James lost hisjob 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 issingle and without dependent children he is not a priority to behoused.

"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 serviceand we arranged to meet and pray after the service in his beddingdown place. He was clearly sick, and I prayed a wordy prayer forhealing and for his circumstances to get better. James thanked meand then said all of a sudden in frustration that I had prayed forthe wrong thing and it was 's**t'. He dropped to his knees andprayed with real passion and sincerity that when he got sicker hewould be ill enough that they couldn't send him back on thestreets. He prayed to have a severe and incurable illness, as tohim it looked like the only way out of his plight."

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of thoseinvolved.