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It's not a case of just some cosmetic clearance of the streets."
Mayor Boris Johnson established the London Delivery Board (LDB) on homelessness in February 2009 with the aim of "ending rough sleeping in London by 2012". The board has co-ordinated most of the major schemes attempting to combat homelessness in the last year, and announced at the end of 2009 that only 67 of the "most vulnerable and chaotic" rough sleepers were left on the capital's streets. To talk about this rapid progress, as well as some of the other major issues affecting homeless people in London at the beginning of a new decade, The Pavement spoke to Richard Blakeway, the Mayor's Advisor on Housing and the chair of the Delivery Board.
"I think we've done quite a bit, actually," says Mr Blakeway, of the board's first year. "Just launching the board itself was a significant step - we brought to the table a number of agencies for whom rough sleeping might not have been the biggest priority. It's really important that rough sleepers are recognised as a group needing distinct help".
Although Mr Blakeway believes that the real success of the LDB has been down to co-operation between different service groups across London, he wants homeless people to be clear about the functions of each service. "People should be assured that when they go to the voluntary sector, they don't feel somehow that there's an ulterior motive, something lurking behind it. They should have that confidence", he says. With this aim in mind, he wants to concentrate the LDB's efforts on healthcare services for the homeless, rather than enforcement operations.
"I don't want to focus solely on the police," he says. "This year, we want to provide a new GP service at street level, and I think that will be an important step forward. That will mean an NHS professional going out with the Outreach teams to help rough sleepers".
Despite recent government figures claiming that the overall number of rough sleepers in London declined in 2009, the number of Central and Eastern European migrants living on the streets has been rising - and how these people are dealt with is going to occupy much of the LDB's work in the coming year.
"About 40 per cent of rough sleepers in London are A10 migrants," says Mr Blakeway, "so it's a real issue. I would stress that the last resort is not removal [to their home country]: the last resort is them remaining on the streets. There are people who want to return voluntarily, and groups like the Barka Foundation are doing great work to organise this. What we need to do is provide better information for foreign nationals when they are coming to the UK, spelling out the obligations they have to meet if they are to have the safety net of public funds". He says the LDB will not just deport homeless people from A8 and A10 countries, but will also try and help those that are qualified into work.
The LDB announced at the end of the year that the number of "the most entrenched" rough sleepers in London had dwindled from 205 to only 67 individuals. Mr Blakeway expects similarly quick progress over the next few months. "Everything I'm getting back from people working in the boroughs is that we should be able to help the remainder of the 205 into accommodation by this summer," he says.
However, he is keen to distance the plans to help these entrenched rough sleepers from some of the controversial tactics employed by London authorities in the last year such as Operation Loose Change and the ‘wetting down' of rough sleepers' bedding areas in Operation Poncho.
"Wetting down is entirely separate to the 205 - it is absolutely not part of it. Wetting down - Operation Poncho - is not part of the 205 strategy and neither is Operation Loose Change, which was an anti-begging campaign." He says these policies are unrelated to the work of the LDB, and so he is not in a position to comment on whether they'll continue as we approach 2012. He insists, however, that the pledge to end homelessness in London is not just about a superficial change before the start of the Olympics. "This isn't a case of making sure London's streets don't have any rough sleepers on them for a couple of weeks in the summer of 2012. We want to ensure that anyone sleeping rough has a rapid response and a better service response."
"As we approach 2012, I hope there is more effort to help people, but certainly not a case of moving people around, certainly not a case of just some cosmetic clearance of the streets. It's about the whole of London saying that rough sleeping has been a problem here for more than 200 years, and it's about time someone said ‘We're going to do something about this problem'."