Plans by Westminster council to ban soup runs and rough sleeping around Westminster cathedral have divided charities.
The Tory-controlled council, which has been trying to get rid of soup runs for a decade, wants to introduce a bylaw (pdf) targeting the area around Westminster cathedral piazza, where residents have complained for years about the impact.
"Of those homeless people who congregate in the area, there is a minority of hard drinkers and drug takers who cause residents and visitors distress, which I have witnessed and been told about," a Westminster cathedral representative told the council. "During the day they can often be seen in groups of up to 15, and this can dramatically increase in the evenings with the soup runs."
Between 100 and 150 people slept rough in Westminster each night on average over the past year, the council said, adding that between 25% and 35% came from new EU states in eastern Europe. Westminster council said the bylaw would not impede voluntary groups that deal with rough sleeping or reduce the level of services for vulnerable people in the borough.
The proposal has divided charities and volunteer groups. The Salvation Army said: "This could be the thin end of the wedge that leads to other no-sleep zones in Westminster and across the capital.
"This is a very dangerous and worrying prospect that will endanger people's health by forcing them to hide away in dangerous areas where they cannot be discovered or supported to change their situation.
"For the vast majority of people, sleeping rough is not a lifestyle choice. Rather than intimidating rough sleepers to retreat into back alleyways, to hide away in refuse containers, or to squat in derelict buildings, the answer is to give them somewhere to stay."
Housing Justice said the council's move was "over the top", would create further difficulties for the homeless and spread the problem elsewhere.
"I would be reluctant to reduce any services for the homeless with all these cuts to services and benefits that will have a huge impact on the vulnerable," said Alastair Murray, the group's deputy director. "This is the wrong time to say to volunteers that they should not be helping."
Murray predicted that people would defy such a bylaw if it came into force and be prepared to go to jail.
"This strikes at the heart of people trying to help others," he said, adding that it sat uneasily with David Cameron's notions of a "big society".
David Coombe of the Coombe Trust Fund rejected the notion that the group's soup run encouraged rough sleeping.
"Very, very few choose this life. It is simply that there is not enough done for them and that which is done is undertaken almost exclusively by the third sector," he said. "I choose to operate our soup run because there is a need. Some 15 of us attend our bi-monthly runs and we meet many new faces each trip. Approximately 25% of those we see are ex-army and 30-40% originating from eastern Europe."
While voicing sympathy for Westminster council and expressing scepticism about soup runs, Howard Sinclair, the chief executive of Broadway, a homeless charity, questioned the council's approach.
"A bylaw misses the point," he said. "Banning soup runs will not get people off the street and does not engage those people who are volunteering."
Other charities backed the move. Jeremy Swain, the chief executive of Thames Reach, said: "This is not a borough-wide ban, which I would oppose." He said rough sleeping in the area had a "detrimental impact on the lives of people living and working in the immediate vicinity".
Swain added: "It is reasonable that the council should seek to introduce a bylaw covering this specific area whilst at the same time continuing to commit resources towards ending rough sleeping in the borough."
Charles Fraser, St Mungo's chief executive, said: "While we recognise the compassion involved in providing food to vulnerable people, those in distress and rough sleeping need services that will support them off the streets for good, and give them the opportunity for longer-term better housing, health and work as they move on with their lives."
Westminster has three day centres offering heavily discounted food, washing and laundry facilities, clothes, doctors, dentists and mental health services, and one emergency night centre. It also commissions supported housing schemes for people moving from hostels towards independent living.
"We are pushing people towards building-based services, where they can access medical treatment, social care and the like. We don't want to see people living on our streets," said a council spokeswoman.
Westminster has cut its Supporting People budget for the vulnerable from £17m to £14.4m for the next financial year.
Daniel Astaire, Westminster council's cabinet member for society, families and adult services, said there was no need for anyone to sleep rough in Westminster "as we have a range of services that can help them off the streets to make the first steps towards getting their lives back on track".
The council has begun a consultation and hopes to have a bylaw in place by October. Westminster council last tried to ban soup runs in 2007, but the proposal was not included in the London bill, following a public outcry. The council's efforts to stop soup runs in Westminster date back to 2001.
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