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Still no room at the inn

The issue of homelessness, particularly in our capital, is becoming a serious issue of concern. It is not unusual to see forlorn figures huddled on park benches craving for warmth as the nights close in. However this sight and the wider issue of homelessness is not only unique to London. Many other countries face the same problems.

Recently Westminster Council made the decision to reject an application for a bronze statue of a rough sleeping homeless Jesus to be placed around the Houses of Parliament. The aim of the statute was to draw the attention to the ever-increasing homelessness crisis. One has to ask what inferences we can draw from Westminster Council’s decision in regards to their attitude and approach towards the ongoing homelessness issue.

The life-size bronze statue in question is a sculpture designed by the Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz. The sculpture depicts an unidentified person concealed by a blanket sleeping on a park bench. The only clue as to the real identity of the figure is the visible stigmata wounds on the feet poking out from under the blanket. Similar casts of this same sculpture are already on display in places such as Dublin, Madrid, Toronto, Washington DC and the Vatican.

In 2013 Pope Francis even commented on the artwork stating that is was a “beautiful and excellent representation of Jesus”. Despite this notoriety, an application to place the statue in front of Methodist Central Hall was rejected by Westminster Council on the basis that it “would fail to maintain or improve (preserve or enhance) the character or appearance of the Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square Conservation area.” The location for the statute was also deemed to fall within its “monument saturation zone” and failed to meet the requirements of Section 25 of their city plan.

In other words, the Council decided that there were already too many statutes in the vicinity, and the statute in question was out of sync with the tone of the neighbourhood. This decision is likely to be appealed.

But is Westminster Council’s decision to reject the statue an isolated decision or a reflection of their own broader attitude to homelessness as a whole? Recent statistics show that Westminster Council has the highest population of homeless people in the UK. In fact in 2014 it was recorded as having as many as five times the number of rough sleepers than any other borough. The Council has even been accused of “social cleansing” because of a systematic programme introduced to relocate families to outer London boroughs. This has led to a host of litigated homelessness appeals from a variety of law firms, including our own, requiring them to be act more openly and accountably when concluding that there is no suitable accommodation within the borough.

However can they continue to simply ‘close their eyes’ to this ever increasing problem? The issue of homelessness has become more prevalent in recent times, particularly as a result of the current refugee crisis. Every day more and more refugees escaping the war torn countries such as Syria turn up on the shores of Europe.

They risk their lives to undertake a perilous journey across the sea in order to escape the constant bombing of their towns and cities in a desperate search of safety, which often results in the deaths of close family members. With between 850,000 to 1.1 million refugees needing to be relocated across Europe from last year alone, each European country has a part to play in tackling the issue.

Over 100,000 people have signed an independent petition calling for Britain to ‘take its fair share’ of refugees. Germany alone expect to take an estimated 800,000 to a million refugees. The Prime Minister recently announced that the UK would pledge to help 20,000 refugees and it is calculated by Citizens UK that of this figure, 2,600 of the refugees should be resettled in London. While so many argue that Britain does not have the capacity to help, we only need to look at Lebanon, a country far less economically stable than the UK which have taken 30-40% of refugees. In London, recent Government figures show that 1,337 refugees have been given a new home in Britain under the “Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement” scheme which set up in early 2014. However, statistics obtained by the charity Citizens UK indicates that just over 3% of these people (43 people) have been resettled in London.

In fact only four of the capital’s boroughs have signed up to the scheme, namely Camden, Islington, Barnet and Kingston. Notably Westminster has not signed up to the scheme. George Gabriel of Citizens UK have has stated that the fact that “one of the world’s greatest cities is going to play next to no role in responding to the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War is clearly unacceptable.” Citizens UK are now calling for more help from landlords to help refugees be housed across the UK.

When we compare this stance of local authorities such as Westminster, with that of the Church, it is clear to see that the attitude of both parties in regards to refugees and the homelessness crisis could not be more at odds, rekindling the longstanding battle between the state and the church. As recently reported in the news, Pope Francis himself took the unprecedented move of taking a dozen highly vulnerable refugees who faced deportation, back to the Vatican with him after his recent visit to a refugee camp in the Greek Island of Lesbos. This brought the severity of the current crisis to the attention of the International community so that more efforts could be made to devise a credible solution.

While the Jesus statue itself invites divided opinion, it could have symbolically drawn attention to the increasing problem of homelessness in the UK and London. The whole issue of homelessness on both a national and international level is a problem that is rapidly becoming out of hand and must be addressed now before it is too late and a credible and practical solution must be found. One such solution provided by the Government is the increasing number of cases where tents have been provided to homeless people as an interim solution. But is this really enough? This was considered by our colleagues Sophie and Jack in their blog ‘Pitching a Solution’.

There is increasing media and public interest in this issue but so far the response to the homelessness crisis as a whole from not just Westminster Council, not just the UK but the world as a whole has been disappointing, and has singularly failed to address the problem.

The future of homelessness in the UK appears to be bleak. The situation is likely to become an increasing problem with no quick solution forthcoming.

Consequently, although the statue of a homeless Jesus may not be the practical answer to these problems, it could have at least raised the awareness of the ever growing issue of homelessness and the need for more available housing.