Fenced Inn Fields?
Squall 4, April/May 1993, pg. 8.
Last September, a building worker carrying out repairs near Lincolns Inn Fields cracked a drain that left a sewage pipe open to the air. The incident, which went unreported for three days, allowed thousands of rats access to the Fields.
“They would burrow under your tent at night,” says Odon, who has been a rough sleeper in the Fields on and off for the past fifteen years. “The leaves on the ground would be moving all the time because rats were under them everywhere.”
At one time, outreach housing workers were finding themselves surrounded with rodents every time they visited the area. “Sometimes just standing talking to one of the rough sleepers you could count twelve rats around you,” said one.
“There was one guy who, despite Government assurances that seriously ill homeless people would be taken care of, was simply discharged from hospital with nowhere to go,” reports Brian Millar, a housing worker. “He had one lung missing, a huge lump in his neck and cancer in the other lung and he moved back to Lincolns Inn Fields.
It was ridiculous, one morning he awoke with two rats in his sleeping bag!”
Eventually Council eradication officers laid rat poison in the area and the situation dramatically improved.
There are still around forty rough sleepers living in makeshift huts and tents in the fields, the numbers having been reduced from around one hundred by the rat invasion and by offers of hostel places. Those still remaining will not or cannot live in hostels despite offers.
“I was in the Russian Army for two years national service under Stalin in the fifties,” explained Odon, “but hostels, I can’t stick ‘em. I’ve been in a few but they’re so institutionalised. You’re told to do this and do that, be in on the dot or be locked out. Some of my buddies are mentally sick, some have been on the road for fifteen years or more and they can't live in these places being treated like shit. They’d rather rough it than stay in one. You ask Dublin Charlie or any of them that are still left, offer them a flat and they would say yes”.
But there are precious few flats being made available. The Government trumpets its £96 million Rough Sleepers Initiative as a significant step forward, but housing workers on street level say that the initiative is useless as a lasting solution. What is required, they argue, is more permanent, dignified housing with back up counselling and care to help the rough sleepers adjust to life off the road.
Local uniformed police have been alright to the tent dwellers in the Fields, getting to know them and trying to make sure that the older rough sleepers are not harassed or mugged by younger arrivals. Within the last few weeks however, there have been plain clothed police of unknown origin visiting the area. “They have been getting nasty with the rough sleepers,” one outreach worker said: “Saying to them - ‘Lets see your fucking ID. Lets see your fucking belongings and what are you fucking doing here and when are you leaving?’” The Council have also erected a temporary eight foot high fence around the area to make life even more difficult for the people staying there. Despite all this, Sir George Young (Minister for Housing) still claimed on BBC’s ‘Question Time’ (25/2/93) that “there has been no harassment and no coercion at all”.
At an unspecified date towards the end of March, Camden Council intend to erect a permanent ‘ornamental’ fence around the site in order to keep homeless people out. If this does not constitute ‘coercion’ then there are some wildly varying versions of the English Dictionary being circulated.
Up until the publication of this issue of SQUALL, a team of concerned lawyers and housing workers are resisting attempts to sweep the rough sleepers quickly under the carpet, claiming a continued right of public access to the site. “There is going to be a showdown,” promises Brian Millar.