Councils try to clear central London of rough sleepers prior to 2012

Zardoz tony at
Thu Dec 10 14:43:39 GMT 2009

Human rights advice for homeless to deter councils' heavy-handed tactics
Rush to clear central London of rough sleepers prior to 2012 Olympics could be breaching human rights, charities fear
Mark Gould - The Guardian, Wednesday 9 December 2009 

Charities are so concerned that authorities are using excessively heavy-handed tactics to eradicate street homelessness that they have issued a guide to rough sleepers about their human rights.

Housing Justice, Liberty and the Simon Community are among the eight charities that fear police, local councils and the voluntary organisation working with them may be breaching human rights in the rush to clear central London of rough sleepers before the 2012 Olympics.

A booklet, Rights Guide for Rough Sleepers, is being handed out this week to explain police powers in relation to stop and search, arrest, drunkenness, obstructing the highway, and urinating in public places. The pocket-sized, water-resistant booklet points out: "You cannot be arrested just because you look weird, or are dressed in scruffy clothes. The police officer must have a reason to think you are up to no good – it has to be more than a hunch." It also sets out a series of questions based on problems raised by people attending Salvation Army and women's drop-in centres.

Sally Leigh, London coordinator at Housing Justice, says it is not uncommon for rough sleepers to be woken up and moved along, or even be stopped and searched, several times a night. Some parts of the City of London have become "dispersal zones" – in effect, no-go areas.

One of Leigh's main concerns is the continuing practice of "wetting down" doorways or other places where people sleep, which was introduced as part of Operation Poncho in 2008 by the City of London Corporation, in partnership with the police and homelessness charity Broadway.

"In the early hours of the morning, they target 'hot spots' where groups of two or more are sleeping and wake them up and use stop and search techniques that they call a 'welfare check'," Leigh explains. "A Corporation of London water bowser sprays a jet of high pressure water on the spot several times during the night so they can't go back to sleep. We think this borders on a kind of torture."

Val Stevenson, a trustee of The Pavement, the free magazine for homeless people, another contributor to the guide, says that it is "inundated" with inquiries from readers asking: "Is this lawful?" If, for example, they ask if they can urinate in the streets, they will be advised that "this is wrong – don't do it". But if the query is about being moved along eight times in one night, the answer will be: "What they are doing to you is wrong".

She says "stop and search" is a particular problem. "One man, woken at 2am four nights in a row, moved on and lost contact with his homelessness worker."

Howard Sinclair, chief executive of Broadway, denies that rough sleepers have been subjected to being sprayed with water, or any other coercive behaviour.

He insists that Broadway supports homeless people to get into work or training, and to get back to their home countries if they are from eastern Europe, and that he has never had any complaints from them. Since the outreach operation began in April 2008, it has helped more than 500 homeless people. "We have to confront people living on the streets where it is dangerous," Sinclair says. "Life expectancy is around 38 if you're taking drugs. We confront people, saying: 'You should not be here.' We know we can get people off the streets."

Sinclair agrees that a rights guide is useful, as the number of people on the streets has risen slightly. Latest figures from the Combined Homeless and Information Network (Chain) showed that 1,441 people were seen rough sleeping in London between July and September 2009 – an increase of 169 compared with the previous quarter, but 21 fewer than in the same period last year. At a memorial service last month for rough sleepers who have died on the streets in the last 12 months, 200 names were read out – a 25% increase on 2008, which homelessness charities attribute to the cold winter.

"No one would find it acceptable to sweep the streets of the homeless, but we have mechanisms to get people off the street into some sort of accommodation," Sinclair says.

The City of London Corporation denies that its tactics are excessive. A spokeswoman says: "We cannot simply leave rough sleepers. We need to engage with them, check on their welfare, and offer them support. Our outreach workers do everything they can to ensure their particular needs and requirements are met. No one needs to sleep rough within the City of London area as we have pledged to find appropriate accommodation for all who wish to access it."

The Rights Guide for Rough Sleepers is available from and 

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