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Housing

Human rights lawyers warn council to ‘stop harassing’ rough sleepers

Westminster City Council has been told ‘filming’ people sleeping rough on the streets could breach their human rights

Human rights lawyers have told a London authority to “stop treating homelessness as a crime” and accused council staff of filming and harassing rough sleepers for more than a year.

Liberty has told Westminster City Council the alleged filming is likely to breach Article Eight of the European Convention of Human Rights which enshrines a right to respect for private and family life.

Big Issue vendor Martin Burns is among a number of rough sleepers who have alleged the council has harassed them for 16 months.

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Martin, 62, who sells the magazine outside Marks and Spencer in High Holborn, said: “They’ve been videoing, taking photos, waking us up – I had a video phone in my face one night while I was sleeping in cardboard boxes. They’re not allowed to do that, they haven’t got any enforcement powers.

“I’m being woken up every morning at 10 to seven and it’s harassment. It makes me feel angry to deal with this.

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“I’ve been told that I am allowed to be moved on under the Vagrancy Act but they don’t have the enforcement powers to harass me like this.”

In response to Martin’s allegations, a Westminster City Council spokesperson told The Big Issue: “We have been made aware of the allegations and we are looking in to this matter urgently.”

It is not the first time Martin has gone head to head with the local authority – the vendor claimed that council outreach teams had hosed down his Covent Garden sleeping spot in January in an attempt to move him on.

Martin also complained about the alleged harassment to the campaign group Museum of Homelessness who got in touch with Liberty.

The lawyers sent a letter to the council on March 2, warning that harassment of people sleeping rough, including filming them while sleeping and without their consent, is likely to breach human rights laws.

Liberty lawyer Lara ten Caten told the council there “must be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of article 8 rights unless this is prescribed by law, serves a legitimate aim, and is proportionate.”

The letter also warned that “it is not necessary to record inside someone’s sleeping space to check on their welfare”.

Lara said: “If you’re homeless or sleeping rough, your council should be there to provide help and support, not punishment. Filming homeless people without their consent is part of an attitude to homelessness that treats people as requiring policing and punishment, rather than compassion and support.

“The pandemic has put many more people at risk of homelessness, and heightened the risks faced by people already sleeping rough. It’s time the Government stopped treating homelessness as a crime, and ensured people get the support they need.”

Jess Turtle, co-founder of Museum of Homelessness, added: “We know that there is a long history of this kind of enforcement in Westminster and it is always unacceptable.”

Turtle said she was “appalled” that the alleged harassment had been taking place during the pandemic and during lockdown, “when people are even more isolated and at risk than usual”. 

“We are pleased to be able to work with Martin, the Simon Community and Liberty to challenge it,” she added.

Despite being on the doorstep of the Houses of Parliament, Westminster is one of  England’s rough sleeping hotspots.

A total of 242 people were counted as sleeping rough in Westminster on one night in autumn 2020, according to the official rough sleeping figures released last week.

That marks Westminster as the area with the highest number of rough sleepers in England and that has been the case since the official rough sleeping snapshot began in 2010.

According to Westminster City Council’s 2019 review of homelessness, the area attracts a disproportionate number of rough sleepers due to the perceived safety of its 24-hour nature, its central location and access to transport hubs.

The local authority has provided more than 800 rough sleepers with emergency accommodation during the pandemic. A spokesperson told The Big Issue: “Our outreach teams continue to work hard every day and night to provide essential support tailored to each individual.”

But the local authority has faced accusations of a heavy-handed approach, including hosing down the streets as was the case for Big Issue vendor Martin in January.

It’s time the Government stopped treating homelessness as a crime, and ensured people get the support they need

The latest accusations come at a time when the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has hinted at a more compassionate approach towards rough sleeping.  

Last week Jenrick told the House of Commons the 200-year-old Vagrancy Act, which makes it an offence to sleep rough or beg, could be consigned to the past. He said: “It is my opinion that the Vagrancy Act should be repealed. It is an antiquated piece of legislation whose time has been and gone.”

Liberty, as well as homelessness charity Crisis, led calls for the act to be scrapped in recent years.

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