A group of homeless people who bed down in a tube tunnel near parliament have accused the chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, Rose Hudson-Wilkin, of driving them out of their only home after complaining to security officials about their “ongoing stench”.
They wrote to the chaplain on Thursday, saying their lives had taken a turn for the worse since she complained about them, having been expelled from “the closest thing we had to a home”.
The New Statesman obtained parliamentary email exchanges written in February detailing a complaint from Hudson-Wilkin, the Speaker’s chaplain since 2010, to parliamentary security officials about the “ongoing stench” created by about 20 rough sleepers in the underground entrance used to access parliament from Westminster tube station.
She said the tunnel – which she said was being used as a urinal – was “absolutely filthy” and expressed concern that piled-up bedding could pose a security risk.
While devastated to learn of the deaths of at least two homeless people at the station, she said while it was “heartbreaking that we have people sleeping by the underground entrance”, action needed to be taken.
The letter to Hudson-Wilkin, who in November will become the Church of England’s first black female bishop, of Dover, said the homeless people had been upset by her “hurtful remarks”.
Hudson-Wilkin told the Guardian: “I have not yet received this letter. When I do I will be very happy to respond to whoever has written to me. In 21st-century Britain nobody should have to sleep outdoors in conditions like that.”
When the story of her complaint first broke, she said: “We may find it unpleasant and concerning to walk through the underground station on the way to work or home, but for those who have to live like this – forgotten and overlooked by society – it is so much worse. Nobody should have to live like this.” She added that “moving people on” would not solve the problem.
However, shortly after, the rough sleepers said they were forced out of their tunnel and were now sleeping outside.
The letter is signed “Paul Westminster” and has been written on behalf of the group sleeping in the tunnel. Paul sells the Big Issue at one of the entrances to the station.
According to the group, soon after Hudson-Wilkin lodged her complaint they were served with community protection notices which threatened them with fines of £20,000 if they continued to sleep in the tunnel.
“Our belongings were taken and thrown away without warning, sleeping bags and all. We were harassed under the 1824 Vagrancy Act and then without a warning given, a grate was installed expelling us from the best shelter in the area and the closest thing we had to a home. The tunnel now sits warm and empty and unused at night while we sleep outside,” they said.
They told the Guardian that as well as losing their sleeping place they were distressed at the assumption they were the reason behind the “ongoing stench”. They said the smell of urine was not due to them but to people coming out of pubs around parliament late in the evening. They said they tried to prevent the drinkers from urinating in the place they considered to be their home and did their best to keep the area clean and tidy.
“You presumed that we were using our subway as a urinal when in fact we prevented other people from doing so because we had made our home there,” the letter said.
It cited Proverbs 21:13: “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor he too will cry out and not be answered.”
It is the latest in a series of conflicts between homeless people in the area and parliament. Recently, parliament apologised to a group of rough sleepers who bed down close to the Palace of Westminster after taking individual photos of them without their permission while they slept.
The parliamentary estate has effectively evicted them by installing shutters to mark parliament’s new boundary, following a transfer of land from Transport for London.
Rough sleeping in the London borough of Westminster increased by 16% between April 2018 and March 2019. During that period, outreach workers recorded 2,512 people sleeping rough, compared with 2,165 the previous year.
A spokesperson for the Labour Homelessness Campaign said: “The rough sleepers in the Westminster tunnels deserve to be treated as human beings. Instead they were stigmatised, criminalised and evicted from what should be public space. The Westminster eviction should be reversed and parliament should take responsibility for ensuring the people living on its doorstep get housing and support.”
• This article was amended on 18 October 2019 to clarify that Rose Hudson-Wilkin is set to become the Church of England’s first black female bishop, not first black bishop as an earlier version said.