By Johann Hari
Earlier this week, the Tory-run Westminster Council, one of the richest in Britain, announced a ban on sleeping on the streets, or feeding anybody who does. They say giving Steven food only “encourages” him to be homeless. So on Tuesday night, I went on one of the soon-to-be-criminalized soup runs. I walked around the neon warrens of the West End – through the theatre-throngs, and past the fancy fashion stores – with two volunteers from the charity the Simon Community.
Cynthia Jameson and Mark Jones know by name all the homeless people they give soup, sandwiches and coffee to. They know their anxieties, their foibles, and their jokes. There’s Steven. There’s Greg, who believes he has discovered a cure for malaria, but the UN has stolen and destroyed it. There’s Andrew, shivering with heroin-withdrawal. There’s the Chinese man who can’t speak English but smiles with gratitude as he shovels five sugars into his tea. And, these days, there are new faces every time they come. Phil is a 27 year-old who has only been out on the streets for three weeks. “I worked in construction for twelve years, but this recession is so bad now there’s just no work,” he tells me. “I couldn’t pay my rent, so I got chucked out. I never thought this would happen to me. I’m so ashamed.” I tell him the Tory council believes he is “encouraged” here by the free food. He looks down at his sandwich and asks softly: “What planet are they on?”
Cynthia and I pause outside the Covent Garden Opera House. With the light reflecting in her eyes, she shakes her head and says: “How can they make it a crime to show kindness like this?”
David Cameron is slashing the money that is given to local councils, who have the legal responsibility to house the homeless – and the result is entirely predictable. Cornwall is slashing its spending on the homeless by 40 percent. Southwark is slashing it by 50 percent. Nottingham is slashing it by 70 percent. Across Britain, services for the homeless are closing. The ones that remain will have a skeleton staff, opening and shutting the hostel doors but not providing the long-term support that actually gets people off the streets. I couldn’t find a single person in the field who believes Cameron’s claim that volunteers will make up the difference – or even get a tenth of the way there.
This is being done at a time when the number of people needing those hostels and that support is set to sky-rocket. Some 90,000 single tenants and 82,000 families are facing eviction from their homes because of Housing Benefit cuts. Some will end up on friends’ sofas, or in emergency B&Bs. But a lot will end up on the streets. More and more people will be scrambling for fewer, feebler shelters – and all the Tories can think to do is try to ban people from feeding the victims. Their only hope is to turn our media into a Murdochracy, where the real news will be drowned out by an orgy of blaming the victims. Even people unmoved by basic human sympathy can surely see that all this is a recipe for a crime explosion.