Security guards in central London have been accused of filming homeless people while they sleep – for over a year.
Outreach group the Museum of Homelessness (MoH) says people sleeping rough off the Strand are harassed most mornings by the guards, who say they are conducting “welfare checks”.
Lawyers from campaign group Liberty have now told Westminster Council such intrusions are a breach of human rights and have demanded it either stops the guards from filming or explains the legal basis for doing it.
MoH says the issue in Southampton Street, part of the Northbank Business Improvement District (BID), has been going on for 16 months and has scared away four regular rough sleepers.
They think they are policemen but haven’t got any powers. Just because I’m a rough sleeper, I still have rightsMartin Burns
Martin Burns told HuffPost UK he has been targeted while trying to sleep.
The 62-year-old said: “They even shoved the phone inside my box to get a video and I complained to the outreach team but then Covid struck and nothing was done.”
Burns, who initially raised the issue with the MoH, says the activity is continuing and that people are frequently being woken up and told to move on. Now he says he has started filming the security guards.
He added: “They shouldn’t wake people up, they don’t have enforcement powers, so over the last few months I’ve been making videos of them harassing us every morning Monday to Friday at 6.50am.
Branding them “bullies”, he said: “They think they are policemen but haven’t got any powers. Just because I’m a rough sleeper, I still have rights.
“They think we are lowlifes, something they can wipe off their shoes, that’s the kind of people they are.”
The BID is a public-private partnership with Westminster Council. Its website boasts it is “strengthening our area’s identity, cleanliness and safety” to “continually improve the experience of people working, living and studying here, while attracting a higher number of business visitors and tourists.”
A Westminster Council spokesperson said: “We have been made aware of the allegations and we are looking in to this matter urgently.”
They said council officers are not provided with equipment to film rough sleepers, nor are they instructed to do so with their own personal devices, and that it was trying to identify who the individuals are.
They added: “In response to Covid-19 and the cold weather, more than 800 rough sleepers have been provided emergency accommodation and our outreach teams continue to work hard every day and night to provide essential support tailored to each individual.”
A Northbank BID spokesperson said it too was investigating the matter “urgently”
“We fund patrol teams, as requested by local businesses in the area, to support vulnerable people on the streets,” they said.
“We fund an outreach service and work closely with charity partners and the council. This work has resulted in people accessing support services. The patrol teams do wear body-worn cameras for the purpose of safety and fewer than 1% of their interactions occur with the cameras recording.
“Without being provided with further information on the specific incidents in question, we cannot provide further details at this stage.”
Burns, who sells the Big Issue, says he won’t be scared off by the security guards’ behaviour and is “staying put”.
He says when he has asked them why they are filming him they have variously replied that they are conducting outreach, working for the police, and for the council. At no point have they offered any assistance other than to refer to a nearby day centre for the homeless.
He added: “I said you can’t take pictures or video us, they said they can and that they could move us on under the Vagrancy Act of 1824.”
In a letter to the council seen by HuffPost UK, Liberty lawyer Lara ten Caten points out that intrusive filming such is likely to be a breach of article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, that enshrines everyone’s right to respect for their private and family life.
She 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.”
Earlier this month, Westminster Council was criticised for “despicable and inexcusable” tactics to deter rough sleepers when it was accused of “hosing down” the same street.
Burns, who was interviewed by the Big Issue about the incident, said he had returned to the spot where he had been sleeping for two years to find his bedding and tent removed and the pavement drenched with water. His belongings have not been returned and he was not told where they were taken.
Responding to the allegations at the time, a council spokesperson said workers were sent to “investigate the area” after reports of anti-social behaviour, including drug use. They said the aim was to support people sleeping rough and clean up sites no longer being used.
“All the individuals found rough sleeping were signposted towards local support services provided by the council and our charity partners, and all were offered safe and secure accommodation,” the spokesperson said.
Last month, HuffPost UK revealed how police forces in England and Wales were using the 19th century legislation to “criminalise” homeless people during the Covid-19 pandemic.
There were 361 charges that led to court hearings between April and September last year using two sections of the Act that relate to begging and rough sleeping.
And in January, we also revealed how campaigners feared homeless people were being treated harshly under legislation allowing officers to “move people on” and ask why they are away from home to prevent breaches of Covid-19 laws.
In 2018, the UK government announced it would review the law – rather than abolish it – but has yet to make any changes.
There were 2,688 people estimated to be sleeping rough on any single night in England during October and November, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said earlier this month.
Post-lockdown, 94% of councils said they expect to see an increase in people made homeless after being evicted from the private rented sector.
Some 94% of councils also expect to see an increase in newly unemployed people made homeless by the pandemic.
The Homelessness Monitor: England 2021 report found also that on any given night 200,000 people in England are experiencing the worst forms of homelessness, including sleeping rough, sofa surfing and stuck in unsuitable accommodation like B&Bs.
Without sufficient government intervention, that number could rise by 27% over the next ten years, the charity Crisis, which commissioned the report, said.