When Harry and Meghan announced their nuptials would take place in Windsor, with tens of thousands of tourists and well-wishers expected to descend on the quaint Thameside town for the occasion, the last thing anyone anticipated was a right royal row over homelessness.
Simon Dudley, leader of Windsor Council, was pilloried in January after saying many of the town’s beggars are not homeless, or if they were homeless they were “choosing to reject all support services” making it “a voluntary choice”. He blamed rough sleepers and homeless people for rubbish accumulating on the streets, and lamented that “the whole situation presents a beautiful town in a sadly unfavourable light”.
Rather than propose investment in measures to prevent people falling into homelessness and proactively deal with those who are already homeless, Dudley requested Thames Valley crime commissioner intervene and demand officers use the power of the law to clear them off the streets ahead of the celebrations.
Controversy duly exploded and Prince Harry, who since childhood has shown support for homeless charities through his mum Princess Diana’s support of Centrepoint, and Meghan, a renowned human rights activist and equality campaigner, became embroiled in the uproar over callous treatment of people already marginalised by society and most in need of help.
Murphy James, project development manager with Windsor Homeless Project, was stunned. “I was shocked that the leader of the council could make such a sweeping statement,” he admits. “And to bring the royal family into it, when it quite literally has nothing to do with them, is also shocking. The royals aren’t allowed to be seen to be political so why should the politicians bring the royal family into their arguments?”
James points to Harry and Meghan’s visit in February to Social Bite, a social enterprise cafe in Edinburgh which trains homeless people in catering, as a clear statement of where their sympathies on the matter lay. “I think that really spoke volumes,” he says.
Rough sleeping in Windsor has not increased, contrary to Cllr Dudley’s claims, insists James. “We have continually had between 10 and 15 rough sleepers since Windsor Homeless Project opened in 2009. The problem has not increased, but because they have gone from the parks to the high streets, they are more visible and people perceive that as homelessness being on the rise.”
This bucks national statistics, however. Crisis estimates that 300,000 – that is one in every 200 – people in the UK are homeless, with rough sleeping in England increasing by 50 per cent in the last five years. Figures compiled by The Guardian estimate that deaths among rough sleepers have more than doubled in the last five years, from 31 to 70 a year – which is believed to be a substantial underestimate. Based on recent records, the average age of death for a rough sleeper is now 43.
There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
If Cllr Dudley’s comments were ill-judged – leading to a vote of no confidence (which he survived) – there was a silver lining of sorts. The issue of homelessness and the need for compassionate solutions was propelled front and centre of public debate, and demands for action gathered momentum.
Back in Windsor, Russell Brand – friend of The Big Issue and campaigner on addiction and rehabilitation – suggested the council donate a house to rough sleepers as a wedding gift. And a Change.org petition rallied hundreds of thousands of people behind calls for the council to offer a “long-term solution for these people, including safe and secure accommodation and health advice and support,” rather than shipping them out.
The petition has amassed more than 320,000 signatures and in mid-February Cllr Dudley was strongarmed into meeting its creator Holly Fishwick.
“The meeting was fairly productive and I was pleased that Mr Dudley seemed open to some of the ideas I suggested,” she wrote in The Big Issue. These included secure storage for people to leave their belongings in, a marketing campaign telling the public how they can help, potential use of council grants for voluntary organisations in the borough and reintroducing travel warrants, so that rough sleepers in Windsor can access support services in Maidenhead.
But she added: “This all seemed very encouraging, however Mr Dudley was keen to let me know that the Rough Sleepers and Anti-Social Behaviour Strategy has been repealed and that two separate papers would replace it; one dealing with support for rough sleepers and the other with anti-social behaviour. I’m hugely concerned that the latter report is still going to be used to try and cut down on rough sleeping in the area.”
Rough sleeping of course should end – nobody should be without a home, and The Big Issue vociferously backs policies that back prevention. But, as Fishwick learned: “The more you look at it the more complex homelessness is. Anyone can become homeless at any time. Prevention has to be the long-term solution.”
Additional reporting: Megan Harman. windsorhomelessproject.org