Big Issue vendor Martin Burns is among the group who saw the spot where they sleep hosed down in a bid to move them on. Credit: Supplied/Simon Community
A central London council has been criticised for “despicable and inexcusable” tactics to deter rough sleeping during lockdown after being accused of ‘hosing down’ streets where people were living.
Big Issue vendor Martin Burns, 62, was among seven people sleeping rough on Southampton Street near Covent Garden when he claims he was woken up by Westminster City Council staff and told to move from the area early in the morning of January 28.
The vendor then left to shop at the Marks and Spencers store in High Holborn where he has sold the magazine for six years. When he returned to the spot where he had bedded down for more than two years, he told The Big Issue he found bedding and tents belonging to the group removed and the pavement drenched with water.
The belongings have not been returned, Martin said, and he was not told where they were taken.
Homelessness campaigners and charities have slammed the move, warning it leaves the group “more vulnerable than ever”.
“I had gone off to where I usually sell The Big Issue to get some shopping and when I got back where I sleep had all been hosed down and everybody had been moved on,” said Martin.
“We should have rights, this is lockdown Where are we going to go? I bed down with my sleeping bag, I don’t cause any problems with any of the firms that work here or the residents.
“There were a few tents here so I can see the council’s point of view but this is lockdown. I’m a rough sleeper – I call myself a street camper – and nowhere is open and there’s nowhere to go. What are we going to do? Run around aimlessly and catch the virus?”
In the last decade, Westminster City Council has come under fire for using similar strong-arm tactics to deter rough sleeping under Operation Poncho, which was launched in April 2008.
Speaking to The Guardian in the months after its inception, former St Mungo’s chief executive and then head of charity Broadway, Howard Sinclair, said that hosing down the spot where rough sleepers stay was used to “make it uncomfortable for people to sleep on the streets, to make them confront the fact that it is not doing them any good, and to engage with services”.
Hi there, working with our charity partners, we continue to offer around-the-clock support, protection and settled accommodation for rough sleepers in Westminster.
Since March 2020, we've helped 430+ people move in settled accommodation and continue to do so.
The local authority told The Big Issue that four members of the group have since accepted the offer of accommodation while tents were surrendered to council officials for disposal while one person removed their tent from the area.
A Westminster City Council spokesperson said: “Following a number of complaints from the local community of anti-social behaviour on Southampton Street, including reports of drug use, the council worked alongside local partners on Thursday 28th January to investigate the area. The aim was to offer support to any individuals found rough sleeping and to clean up any sites that had been affected by the activity there and which were no longer being used.
“All the individuals found rough sleeping at this location were signposted towards local support services provided by the council and our charity partners, and all were offered safe and secure accommodation. As a result of this operation, four individuals have been accommodated successfully and have not returned to rough sleeping since.”
“Since March 2020, we’ve helped 430+ people move in settled accommodation and continue to do so.”
Martin is one of 123 rough sleepers living on the street long-term in Westminster, according to CHAIN figures released last week which counted 692 people bedding down in the London borough in total between October and December 2020.
The Big Issue vendor, who has slept rough for 24 years on and off, was offered accommodation the night before the incident, homelessness charity St Mungo’s has confirmed.
Martin said that he worried about his health if he moved indoors as part of the emergency efforts in London to protect rough sleepers from the coronavirus.
“It’s freedom of choice whether we accept help for accommodation or not,” added Martin.
“How I want to live my life, as long as I don’t endanger other people, I should have that chance to choose. I want to be left alone, I can survive on the streets and I have all the transferable skills to live on the streets.
“Yes I’m angry and no I’m not angry. I know they have a job to do but I’m angry about being moved on in lockdown, they could have done it after lockdown.”
Charities and campaigners have criticised Westminster City Council’s enforcement tactics, describing the incident as “despicable and inexcusable”.
Jess Turtle, Museum of Homelessness co-founder, said: “There are many reasons someone might sleep outside, but this type of enforcement is never acceptable. It is despicable and inexcusable.
“We know this group of people well and we know that they felt safe in this sleep site and have been looking after each other. Now the group is dispersed, isolated and at risk. There is a long history of these actions being taken by London Councils but we honestly didn’t think they would stoop so low during the pandemic.”
Rachel Cullen, Simon Community community manager, added: “People sleep there because it’s well lit, there are shops with CCTV and there is safety in numbers even when it’s only a few.
“They now all sleep in the dark surrounding streets unable to watch for each other. They have been cleared from doorways that are being used by no one in a lockdown and now they are more vulnerable than ever.”
The Big Issue is supporting Martin with supermarket vouchers and cash while he is unable to sell the magazine during lockdown. Overall, The Big Issue has given vendors more than £800,000-worth of support since the first Covid-19 lockdown in March last year.