Rough sleepers in Westminster accuse their local council of confiscating their tents

Jeremy Ruygrok (left) was born in Chelsea and confirmed at Westminster Cathedral, just metres from where he now sleeps. He claims his tent and belongings were confiscated by Westminster Council
Jeremy Ruygrok (left) was born in Chelsea and confirmed at Westminster Cathedral, just metres from where he now sleeps. He claims his tent and belongings were confiscated by Westminster Council

Council officers have been accused of confiscating tents and sleeping bags from rough sleepers who camp beside Westminster Cathedral.

Rough sleepers claim Westminster Council outreach workers –tasked with helping homeless people off the street – disposed of eight tents in the early hours of Tuesday, January 28.

The council said it only removes tents having received a court order, following complaints about drugs or prostitution, or if the tents don’t appear to be lived-in or are causing obstruction.

The cathedral piazza and Victoria Street are known hotspots for rough sleepers, and the council’s offices and the Labour Party’s London HQ are located close by.

Jeremy Ruygrok was once confirmed at Westminster Cathedral and now sleeps rough just metres away. He says the council confiscated his tent
Jeremy Ruygrok was once confirmed at Westminster Cathedral and now sleeps rough just metres away. He says the council confiscated his tent

Eight people were found dead last year on the streets of Westminster, a borough where an estimated 250 people sleep rough each night.

One man whose tent and belongings were allegedly taken was Jeremy Ruygrok, who was born in Chelsea and confirmed at the 116-year-old cathedral, just metres from where he now sleeps.

The 63-year-old said his and seven other tents were lined up against an office block at the bottom of Ambrosden Avenue before they were taken.

He has been on the streets for a year-and-a-half, since returning to London from 23 years living in Malaysia and South East Asia, where he worked for a children’s aid charity.

Mr Ruygrok said he was visiting Passage House - a nearby assessment centre and shelter - when the incident happened.

“I believe they just put my tent in refuse,” he claimed.

“I used to camp in Swiss Cottage and they did it there. They don’t like the tents. We’re in front of one of London’s landmarks.”

Mr Ruygrok said he didn’t lose many possessions because his tent had already been robbed just days before.

Katrina Vieira founder of Pimlico Angels who help look after rough sleepers in Westminster
Katrina Vieira founder of Pimlico Angels who help look after rough sleepers in Westminster

“They stole my bag which was actually more vital to me because it had my phone and my address book… most of my documents and things were taken before the council confiscated our tents. Now I keep everything on me.”

Paul Stevenson, 53, also claimed his tent was taken by council officers. He came to London from Newcastle after losing his job and falling into debt with a loan shark, and now sells The Big Issue.

“They came and said residents had been complaining so much,” said Mr Stevenson.

“There were eight tents and no-one was in them at the time, so they threw them away. Some had people's passports in them. Mine was taken but I got my possessions out.”

Paul Stevenson claims his tent was taken by council officers. He came to London from Newcastle after losing his job and falling into debt with a loan shark, and now sells The Big Issue
Paul Stevenson claims his tent was taken by council officers. He came to London from Newcastle after losing his job and falling into debt with a loan shark, and now sells The Big Issue

He added: “It’s when there’s too many tents that local residents get upset. These houses are worth millions. They don’t want to look at people sleeping rough."

Councillor Heather Acton, the council’s cabinet member for public protection, said: “Our priority is to help people off the streets and we currently spend almost £7.8 million a year – more than any other local authority – on supporting rough sleepers

“Our outreach teams have been active in the area around Westminster Cathedral as we receive on-going complaints about anti-social behaviour and drug dealing. Our approach, and that of the homelessness charities we partner with, is always to offer rough sleepers the support they need to find a route off the streets and into accommodation.”

Addressing the rough sleepers’ accusations, Ms Action added: “If we find a tent on the street we will always try to identify the owner if possible, but can remove tents that are deemed to be an obstruction, a safety hazard or that have been clearly abandoned.

“Nobody in Westminster needs to live in a tent as we offer more than enough emergency bed spaces every night for anyone who needs them.”

The Local Democracy Reporting Service spoke to Mr Stevenson and Mr Ruygrok while a group of local parents were handing out meals, clothes and sleeping bags.

Affectionately named the Pimlico Angels, the group sets up their mini street canteen two or three times a week.

They come from estates such as the Churchill Gardens, and coordinate donations by posting on local Facebook groups.

The group’s founder, Katrina Vieira, said: “We have been going for five weeks. We met Jeremy and Paul the first night we went out with a tray of sandwiches. They were telling us what stuff they needed like tents and bedding. So I put some messages out on Facebook and people wanted to help.”

The mother-of-three, aged 36 continued: ”I used to be homeless myself.

“People called us the Pimlico Angels because we're from here, and it stuck.

“These people are so lovely, they just want you to listen and speak to them like normal human beings. We love coming to do this because it makes us feel good and gives us a sense of purpose as well.”

Westminster Council estimates there are about 250 people sleeping rough in the borough every night, and that it provides 550 commissioned beds. It also provides:

  • Mental health support
  • Counselling to overcome drug and alcohol addiction
  • Befriending services
  • Employment and skills training

During periods of extreme cold weather, up to 250 additional bed spaces can be made available in locations such as sports centres, churches, mosques and synagogues.