Plans to close Stratford Centre at night are suspended
- Credit: Archant
Proposals to lock rough sleepers out of the Stratford Centre amid claims the situation has become a “public health emergency” have been put on hold.
Newham Council had suggested the implementation of a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) in the shopping centre, where dozens of homeless people spend the night on pieces of cardboard.
The mall is a public right of way and currently cannot be locked. But a PSPO would overrule this and see it closed between midnight and 5am for the first time since it first opened in 1974.
Campaigners say the problem has become so bad that the area often resembles a "refugee camp" and has become a magnet for crime
The idea of implementing a PSPO and a report detailing the problems in the mall was due to be discussed at a cabinet meeting tonight (Tuesday).
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But mayor Rokhsana Fiaz has now said the report "does not at all reflect the compassion and care approach that my administration is committed to when dealing with our most vulnerable."
She instead committed to setting up a 'homelessness taskforce', which would discuss ways of helping the rough sleepers.
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The council report states the mall, opposite Westfield, "has seen an increase in the level of crime and antisocial behaviour, with incidents of serious violence, sexual offences, intimidation, open drug use, street drinking and aggressive begging".
A council spokesman added that there have also been complaints about the "unacceptable level of cleanliness in the mall as a result of people using areas as an open toilet creating a risk to public health".
An impact assessment added: "It is clear that the situation in the mall needs to be addressed for the sake of the vulnerable people bedding down, the pedestrians passing through and the local businesses. There is a significant risk to the reputation of the borough as a whole if remedies are not seen to be put in place."
PSPOs are most commonly used to control dogs in public spaces. However, they have also recently been used by Ealing council to stop protesters gathering around an abortion clinic and by Kensington and Chelsea to crackdown on supercar drivers revving their engines late at night. Once an area is put under a PSPO anyone breaking its rules can face prosecution or a fine.
Shelter says one in 25 people in Newham are homeless, the highest proportion in Britain. "Homelessness" includes rough sleeping and living in a squat or staying with friends temporarily.
Critics of PSPOs say they criminalise some of the poorest in society.
Cllr Nareser Osei, who represents Stratford and New Town ward, said: "The crisis at the Stratford Centre is a public health emergency. Newham Council has to treat it as such.
"PSPOs criminalise the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
"Closing Stratford Shopping Centre does not deal with the failure in the current homelessness strategy. We should provide solutions not penalties for the poor."
Charity workers who hand out donations of sleeping bags, food and toiletries to the homeless in the centre met with the council on Friday to discuss the plans, which were due to go out to public consultation at the end of the month.
Campaigner and Stratford resident Mickey Ambrose said: "Something has to be done because it is a health hazard. The centre and surrounding area resembles a refugee camp some days.
"There are gangs there who have been charging for 'pitches' at night and encouraging crime. But some people do not have a choice but to sleep there and at least they have a roof over their heads.
"If this was to work the council needs to be doing more to help the homeless and ensure all the people living in the centre have somewhere to go."
A council spokesman said: "Conditions in the Stratford Centre at night are having a significant impact on the vulnerable homeless people who bed down there. Residents have raised concerns about safety, as have workers and business owners.
"Any decision about the solutions, including future opening times, will take into account the impact on vulnerable homeless people and could only be delivered in tandem with a fully developed programme of support for the centre's rough sleepers."