Anti-homeless spikes hide Boris Johnson's failure to tackle rough sleeping

Rough sleeping continues to rise in London, despite the economic recovery.
Rough sleeping continues to rise in London, despite the economic recovery.
Adam Bienkov By

Boris Johnson today called anti-homeless spikes in London to be removed as soon as possible, describing them as "ugly, self defeating & stupid".

The implication is that these spikes are an aberration that do not reflect any wider policy against rough sleeping in London. This is false.

For years borough leaders and City Hall have worked together to in their words "design-out" rough sleepers from London.

This has involved not just floor spikes, but also sloped surfaces, bench barriers and more.

It has also involved far less savoury techniques.

Westminster Council, which has provided Johnson with both his former chief of staff and his deputy Kit Malthouse, have been pioneers in using techniques to harass homeless people out of central London.

One technique practiced by the council, involved police officers forcing rough sleepers to move from their beds so that cleaners could flood where they had been sleeping with hoses.

Homeless people described this as a "psychological bullying tactic" which caused them both stress and sleep deprivation.

At the time, Westminster and the City of London claimed the hosing was merely done to 'clean the streets'.

However, asked about it back in 2008, Malthouse admitted that it had actually been done to make life "more uncomfortable" for homeless people.

"We certainly instituted a policy of making life - it sounds counterintuitive and cruel - more uncomfortable; that is absolutely right," he told the London Assembly in 2008.

He claimed it was part of a wider policy to force people off the streets and into the social care system.

"I know that sounds an awful thing to say but let me finish the argument, OK?  There were, at the time, plenty, well-funded - we managed to get quite a lot of funding - night shelters and night centres... The difficulty was getting rough sleepers into those centres."

He also insisted it was part of an attempt to crack down on what he described as "pretty horrific crimes" taking part in homeless encampments.

But whatever the real reason for the policy, it doesn't appear to have worked.

What Johnson failed to mention today was the fact that he was first elected on a promise to totally eradicate rough sleeping in London by 2012.

However rather than eliminate it, rough sleeping has continued to rise year on year across the city, even as the economy has recovered. In the last year alone, rough sleeping in London rose by 12%.

Yet while rough sleeping in London has increased, it's visibility has not.

The suspicion is that policy makers in London have put too much effort into moving homeless people out of visible areas in central London, and not enough into genuinely helping them off the streets.

According to the charity St Mungo's, one-in-ten of those seen sleeping on the streets last year were former members of the armed forces, a third were former prisoners and almost half were suffering from some form of mental illness. Most have problems with alcohol or drugs.

These are deeply vulnerable people who require assistance not spikes. These are people who require helping up not hosing down.

Johnson's outrage about anti-homeless spikes is welcome, but it hides what is his total failure to tackle homelessness in London.

Six years into his time in City Hall, it's time he finally got around to dealing with it.

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