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Page last updated at 12:56 GMT, Sunday, 13 December 2009

'Wetting down' London's homeless

Jennifer Conway
Politics Show, London

Rough sleeper in London

Cleaning teams hose down rough sleeping areas, flooding them and forcing homeless people to move on, a process known as 'wetting down'

The Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) estimates that there are around 250 rough sleepers on the streets of the capital at any one time.

Over the course of a year 3,500 people will sleep rough in London.

The Mayor has set the target of eradicating rough sleeping in London by the time of the Olympic Games in 2012.

But the latest annual figures from the CHAIN database show an increase of 15% in 2008/9.

Dealing with rough sleepers

Councils use different approaches when dealing with and helping rough sleepers. The City of London runs Operation Poncho, a partnership made of The City of London Corporation, City of London Police and Broadway, a homeless charity who run their out reach programme.

The City of London Corporation and Broadway claim that getting people off the streets and into accommodation is the key issue.

London Cleaning team
Cleaning teams hose down homeless sleeping areas

In April 2008 Operation Poncho started.

These bodies joined to together to formulate a more 'robust' approach to deal with the 'entrenched' rough sleepers who have been on the streets for years and can be difficult to interact with.

But there have been concerns voiced regarding certain aspects of 'Operation Poncho'.

Critics allege that one of the tactics employed to remove vagrants from 'hotspots' (areas where groups of homeless people congregate) is the use of the City of London cleaning teams.

The teams hose down rough sleeping areas, flooding them and forcing homeless people to move on, a process known as 'wetting down'.

The council maintain they are cleaning areas that are a 'health and safety risk'.

Sleep depravation

Police also perform 'Welfare Checks' waking rough sleepers, talking to them and informing them of services available to them. This can happen many times a night, which some critics say is sleep deprivation.

The Rev Simon Perry heard about the 'wetting down' and the 'stop and searches' that homeless people were experiencing.

Rev Simon Perry
The Reverend Simon Perry experienced wetting down

He then started to sleep rough to experience it for himself and encountered 'wetting down' on three separate occasions.

He called a meeting with all the bodies involved and the City of London agreed to suspend the street cleaning aspect of Operation Poncho provisionally, subject to an a review on its effectiveness.

No open review including outside agencies took place and the practice was re-introduced in September.

Charities including 'Housing Justice' and Liberty have now produced a 'Rights Guide for Rough Sleepers'.

This waterproof guide outlines what the law is and what homeless people's rights are. They say just because people do not have a home, it does not mean they do not have rights.

So 'Operation Poncho' - a necessary measure to clean the streets, with vagrants caught in the cross fire or an overly robust measure to rid the City of London of an embarrassing social problem?

Either way a 'wetting down' in the bleak mid winter can hardly seem an act of Christmas cheer if you are a rough sleeper trying to stay warm at night on the streets of the capital.

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