British rapper Professor Green has been hailed a hero for the homeless after he took a local authority to task for installing metal bars on public benches to deter rough sleepers.
Bournemouth Council had raised ire after adapting 28 benches in the town centre with the bars, which it said was due to “numerous complaints by members of the public and local traders.” The project cost £3,650.
Homelessness charities have reacted with dismay, with Shelter CEO Polly Neate telling HuffPost UK: “Unfortunately, measures to deter rough sleepers are not uncommon as councils continue to struggle with rising levels of homelessness.
“But the solution to rough sleeping isn’t to penalise desperate people - it’s about giving them access to proper support and advice.”
After an image of one of the benches went viral, Professor Green publicly asked his near 800,000 Instagram followers “What’s the message here?”
On Thursday the musician – real name Stephen Manderson – filmed himself and a group of friends in Bournemouth removing the bar on one of the benches and replacing it with a wider metal loop, over which tarpaulin could be draped, creating a temporary shelter.
In video posted to social media, Professor Green said: “We’re quite interested in these benches. This cost three-and-a-half grand apparently, to stop people such as that homeless lady over there, sleeping there of an evening.”
When a bystander shouts out “take them off!”, he replies: “There’s something better you can do rather than just take them off. We’re showing what three-and-a-half grand versus 18 quid can do and how much more comfortable it would make people.
“There’s nothing funny about it. Three-and-a-half grand to install bars to stop people sleeping on specific benches is ridiculous.”
The group replaced the original bars after the stunt, with Professor Green later explaining: “That was successful. We left the bench as we found it. Bournemouth – we hope we’ve helped you realise the full potential of your benches. At a cost of £18.50 they can become something to provide shelter for people who don’t otherwise have it, rather than pushing them out and making them feel even less welcome then they already do.”
The 34-year-old’s social media accounts were soon brimming with praise: “Respect!” commended one Instagram user, with another adding: “The council is a disgrace, kicking the most vulnerable when they are already down. Well done for raising awareness.”
Twitter user Sarah thanked him: “Hey, as a Bournemouth resident with a heart, thank you so much for highlighting this issue. I appreciate your efforts today. Keep it up.”
Miss Bell Harker wrote: “So sad to think we live in a world where some people think it is OK to treat our most vulnerable people this way. Well done to you for dealing with a subject most are blind to”. Another fan added: “Amazing! I love that you’ve gone and actually done something!”
A Bournemouth Council spokesman said: “We’re disappointed that musician Professor Green declined to meet our Housing Services Team whilst on his visit to Bournemouth.
“We would have welcomed the opportunity to speak to him about the multi-agency work that goes on to prevent homelessness and the support we provide to rough sleepers.”
The council provides 150 hostel bed spaces for homeless people and funds the St Mungo’s rough sleeper assertive outreach team.
Bournemouth based artist Stuart Semple raised awareness of the matter initially by posting a picture of the benches to social media, where it went viral.
He has since launched a Hostile Design campaign which calls for members of the public to name and shame councils and city planners who commission pieces which engender exclusion and discrimination.
He told HuffPost: “I feel like the pressure on the council is starting to have an impact – they have asked to meet with me and outline the changes they are hoping to make in response to the campaign.
“It’s amazing that Professor Green has come on board to support the campaign and help us raise even more awareness. For him to take time out and come down to Bournemouth and support the effort is really special.”
Official figures show there were 4,751 people counted or estimated to be sleeping rough in autumn 2017, a 15% rise on the year before and more than double the figure recorded five years ago.