Operation Poncho

Thomas Penrose is fiercely critical of Operation Poncho. Photo credit - Michael Parker
Thomas Penrose is fiercely critical of Operation Poncho. Photo credit - Michael Parker

For the homeless rough sleeper, life has enough complications without being woken at 3am on a cold night, quizzed by police and having your sleeping pitch hosed down with water.

Known as Operation Poncho, this approach has been taking place in the City of London since May last year. For a year, rough sleepers were shaken from their sleep and moved on while their shelter for the night was soaked, forcing them on to find another place to rest. At the same time staff from homeless charity St Mungo’s or more recently Broadway were present to steer rough sleepers towards hostels.

While the government has ploughed £538m in council homelessness projects and £106m into improving hostels since 1997, rough sleeping and homelessness is still a problem as it was 10 years ago.

The use of enforcement measures against street sleepers including Asbos or tactics such as Poncho suggest a tougher approach by the authorities toward those they define as “refusing to engage” with services. But why would someone prefer to remain outside?

The St Martin’s-in-the-Fields church on Trafalgar Square and the Connections service have a long history of working with homeless. Its day centre behind the church now assist around 5,000 people a year after a £4million refurb, offering showers, food, healthcare, training, advice and safety in addition to outreach teams on the streets at night.

Outreach manager Annie O’Brien said: “On any night we may have 10 new faces on the street, but most others we know. We have 82-year-olds living on the street who don’t want to go indoors. Being on their own outdoors is what they know, they don’t want to change.”

And the alternative is not always attractive. “Hostels used to be diabolical, but they are improving,” she added. “They have learned to diversify – they can’t be a melting pot.”

Director Colin Glover said that only an estimated 20 to 30 per cent of street homeless used services available to them. “The issue of carrot and stick has been around forever,” he added. “Turn the clock back 15 years and there was huge sympathy with the homeless as it was seen as a failure of government. Now there is a hardening towards unemployed homeless people, and we are caught in the swing of attitudes that almost make things like Operation Poncho seem acceptable.”

The benefit of a roof over one’s head is not always sufficient to tempt rough sleepers indoors, and the one-size-fits-all policy of hostels has thrown together a potentially explosive mix of residents with complex problems.

Thomas Penrose, 59, has been homeless for seven years following a divorce. The soft-spoken Cornishman has never used a hostel, and has always slept rough.

“I wouldn’t go near hostels. I haven’t in seven years and have no intention to,” he told The Big Issue. “I know people that have gone into hostels and come back out again many times over. You’re bound to get clashes between characters there, especially with the mental health or drug problems that you get. But often it’s the aggressive superiority of the staff – the attitudes make it feel more like a correctional facility than a hostel.”

Penrose has experienced early morning calls from City of London officers during Operation Poncho while sleeping on Fleet Street, and believes it is just the latest part of the “factory line” approach to drive people through what he calls the “homelessness industry.”

“For every homeless guy there’s four or five people working for him, from outreach workers to administrators to managers. The system moves so slowly, and so much money is spent on administration. It’s an industry that supports itself.”

Penrose recalls a friend who was offered a flat, but on the day that various staff from housing association, outreach charity, and others met at the arranged time to hand over the keys, he didn’t turn up.

“No one had bothered to tell him,” Penrose recalled. “With attitudes like that, it becomes easier just to say: to hell with it, I’ll stay on the street where it’s easy.”

Even if someone is removed from the street to a flat of their own, he says, it doesn’t necessarily mean the problem is solved: “You might just end up with a man sleeping on the floor of his bare flat, with bills to pay, and no friends. The homelessness industry counts that as a success. But it’s not – it’s just not their problem any more.”

One large hostel in central London, housing around 100 men, is shabby, drab and very reminiscent of a correctional facility.

Around 80 per cent of residents have drug or alcohol dependencies. One is Colin Barclay, who has lived there almost two years, after spending 28 of his 42 years homeless.

He talks animatedly: “I’ve been in 20 or 30 hostels and night shelters in London. With some you’d rather be out on the street,” he said. “There’s solidarity among those outside, keeping and eye out for one another. I’d sooner stay with people I know on the street than come inside where there are strangers. And if you’re a stranger coming in here, it can be very intimidating – there is an undercurrent of violence in most hostels.”

Tattooed ex-punk Eugene, 48, agreed. “I was rough sleeping so long it was comfortable. There’s nothing romantic about it – I just couldn’t deal with any kind of structure at all. Even the three meetings you have to attend to get into the hostel,” he said.

Eugene, also a methadone user, was given an Asbo banning him from south Camden – where most of the services he uses are based. “I’ve breached it eight times,” he explained, “It’s pointless because stopping someone from getting help just means they’re more likely to commit crime.”

Although hostels are moving towards a smaller, more specialised model, the problems of institutionalising the homeless and treating them with a broad brush remain. As Penrose puts it: “Behind the term ‘the homeless’ are as broad a cross-section of society as you’d find anywhere else.”

Poncho is the first example of its kind in Britain, with nothing similar occurring in Birmingham, Leeds or Brighton. Sarah Johnsen from York University’s Centre for Housing Policy published a report last year that found the effects of enforcement on rough sleepers was unpredictable and a “high risk strategy.”

Some targeted homeless were driven to more dangerous activities or social groups, or criminalised through the breaching of Asbos, while for others it was the trigger needed to take positive steps. The report concluded that it should always be used carefully with support available immediately and suitable to each individual.

Johnsen added: “Poncho is founded on the assumption that services are there, but even if the beds spaces were available unless they are immediately accessible then the claims are misleading at best.”

(some names have been changed)


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue]



Barbed graphic design studio
Barbed graphic design studio. Credit: Barbed/Howard League

A groundbreaking project in which prison inmates run a design company from behind bars in an effort to reduce reoffending rates is under threat of closure.

Barbed, a graphic design studio based at HMP Coldingley in Bisley, Surrey, was set up by charity the Howard League for Penal Reform in October 2005 to train and employ inmates as graphic designers.

Launched with £100,000 funding, Barbed is the first attempt to run a commercially viable social enterprise within a prison and supports 60 per cent of its costs through client work.

Clients include many organisations within the field, such as the Butler Trust, Prison Education Trust and the Howard League, but also NHS trusts, legal firm Clifford Chance and even Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But according to a report seen exclusively by The Big Issue, the project, housed within the Category C secure prison, may close because of lack of support.

Andrew Neilson, assistant director of policy at the Howard League, who oversees Barbed, told The Big Issue: “The project was never set up to run forever, but neither the Prison Service nor the government have showed any interest in the idea as a pilot of how real, skilled labour in prisons could work.”

Report author Penny Green, professor of criminology at King’s College London, was tasked by the Howard League to independently assess Barbed’s progress. Her findings, due for publication next month, detail a catalogue of obstacles that have undermined the credibility of the project.

Many of the setbacks are directly linked to prison overcrowding: inmates trained for six months are moved without warning to other prisons to make way for new arrivals, or moved after being re-categorised up to category B or down to category D open prisons. Studio staff are prevented from working by security lock-downs, and working hours have also been cut to around five hours a day.

Barbed staff are also paid a real, above-minimum wage from which tax and National Insurance contributions are deducted. To further emulate the costs of life on the outside, a third of prisoners’ wages is deducted and given to charity.

Barbed’s organisers aimed to introduce skilled work to prisoners who perhaps had no experience of it, complete with a working day, deadlines and the payment of tax to the state as part of the social contract.

But late last year, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) refused to accept the tax and returned a cheque for £18,000 to the Howard League. A letter from HMRC stated that while prisoners based at open prisons working on day release were liable for tax, those working within more secure prisons were not.

The Ministry Of Justice argued that as prisoners are not under contract for the work they do, they are not employees, and as such cannot be taxed.

This contradiction was described by the Howard League’s Euginia Lolomari as “an anomaly that they recognise, but on which they are unwilling to shift”.

She believes government ministers quail at inmates earning a ‘real’ wage for productive work, as opposed to the token Prison Service wage of between £5 and £30 a week earned by inmates for prison jobs such as laundry and packing – and in particular the legal employment rights it would imply.

She said: “The whole point of the project is to demonstrate that businesses based in prison can work, and that prisoners given a full working day and paid a realistic wage are motivated to produce a good level of skilled work.”

Describing the HMRC’s position as ‘Kafkaesque’, Professor Green’s report states that the future of Barbed and projects like it requires the “urgent resolution” of legal issues surrounding prisoner employment. Reforming prison work would require “a wholesale commitment on the part of the Prison Service, which to date is absent”.

She continues: “Denied a meaningful wage and legal employment rights, prison work, from the prisoner’s perspective, is thus linked more with exploitative punishment than reward, and does little to challenge offending behaviour.”

At HMP Coldingley, the Barbed studio looks much like any other small business office: there are half a dozen Apple Macs, pin-boards cluttered with newspaper clippings, diagrams, and finished work adorns the walls.

Barbed has trained 11 inmates, but this has been reduced to three designers and professional studio manager David Allen after staff were moved to other prisons.

For designer Leon, who is in the last stretch of a five-year sentence, it has been a steep learning curve. The 33-year-old said: “It was tricky getting my head around it, but I really enjoy it. It gives me something to look forward to. When I get out in six months I’m planning to set up a social enterprise design business of my own. It’s given me the skills to do that.”

He criticised much of the prison’s other work training. “You just sit around all day. It’s not actually teaching you skills to get a job with outside,” he said.

Another designer, 48-year-old B, has spent the last five years of his life sentence at Coldingley and is up for parole in April. He said: “Working here has been great for me. It’s been a great distraction to everything out there” – he gestures outside the studio’s partition walls – “and a break from the monotony of it all.

“I’ve learnt skills I can use outside. There were a few guys in here that had never worked a job in their life, so it must have been a great help for them and great experience to keep them out of prison in the future.”

One former inmate who worked on the Barbed project has even gone on to work for the Howard League since his release.

But organisations working in the penal system say that the loss of inventive projects like Barbed is almost certain under new recommendations to build super-prisons.

Critics have warned that Titan prisons mean less staff per prisoner, longer lock-up hours and tighter security, all of which work against organisations trying to run rehabilitation programmes.

Barbed studio manager David Allen described running the studio as both rewarding and frustrating. He said: “People get upset that prisoners are working, but would they rather they were doing nothing and getting angrier and more resentful with society? The effect on the guys has been massively positive. They are enthusiastic and keen to work. In prison, at some point, the punishment has to end and the rehabilitation to begin.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue]