A blight on tourism

In Bath, says Paul Kingsnorth (right) police are accused of `purging' the homeless from the city centre. In London, Anna Moore reports (below), a special unit is pioneering a more sympathetic approach to protect them from crime
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The Independent Culture
"For almost two millennia, Bath has welcomed visitors of all kinds; the sick, seeking a cure from the healing waters; the wealthy, seeking entertainment - and today's visitors, drawn by the legacy of that past."

So runs the blurb on the "Welcome to Bath" signposts, placed at strategic points to advertise hotels, restaurants, galleries and the many other attractions this city can offer. Bath is a "must see" for the serious UK tourist; one of Britain's most beautiful towns, it shares with Florence and Rome the distinction of being one of only three United Nations World Heritage Cities. And it has money as well as looks; the city's tourist trade brings in £120m every year, and housing prices are among the highest in the country.

But such opulence has a price and not all visitors are welcome. Tony Harvey, of the Avon branch of Shelter, the national homeless charity, underlines the problem. "The tourist image has caused a lot of problems in Bath. The homeless situation there is no worse, or better, than anywhere else, but I think perhaps it is more noticeable because of the type of city it is."

This "tourist image" creates a friction, which can have disturbing results. "Hostility to the homeless happens everywhere," says Harvey, "but I think in Bath it is particularly bad because they are embarrassing for the city. I think there are purges every so often to get them off the streets."

These "purges" add a sinister dimension to the conflict between tourist trade and the homeless. Lee, 30, has been homeless in Bath for the past eight months. "You get arrested a lot, especially in the summer," she says. "Even if you're selling the Big Issue, which is legal, they just say `you can't sell here', and move you on. In the end, you just give up."

Lee moved to Bath when her children were taken into care. Since arriving, she has been beaten up by gangs of "vigilantes" - "that's how I lost my front teeth" - and says she has suffered at the hands of local media. "I've been to a few cities and it's always the same; if it's a tourist place, you're not wanted."

Martin agrees. He has been on the streets for two years, since the police impounded the bus he used to live in. "Tourism - that's it, yeah. The police threaten to lock you up for any old reason just to get you out. They'll say something like, `we believe you've been hassling customers outside shops, and you've got to move on, or be arrested'." So what does he do? "I move on. It's easier away from the main drag, where the tourists don't go."

But any sort of conspiracy to sweep Bath's homeless problem under the mat is vigorously denied by local authorities. "That is not our position," says Superintendent Ray Shipway, responsible for policing the city centre. "Apart from anything else, I haven't time or resources to run around moving the homeless off the streets just for the sake of tourists."

Kimberly Paumier, Bath City Council's city centre manager, is similarly dismissive. "I've never heard of anyone actively involved in `purging'. The problem is not about how to clear them off the streets, it's about how to give them the self-esteem to better themselves." Does she think the homeless harm Bath's tourist image? "Well, I don't actually think it hurts us to discourage begging in our primary tourist areas."

Dawn Jackson, who runs the Bath night shelter, chooses her words carefully. "I'm sure some people involved in the tourist trade do see them as a threat, and do want them moved on," she says, "but I don't know about `purging'."

Bath seems to experience a sporadic social conscience; outside the tourist season, the homeless are tolerated, even supported. But come the summer, their presence mars the image the city luminaries have worked so hard to create.

Lee has her own answers. "If the Government spent money on trying to help us, instead of putting us down, it would benefit everyone." She lights a cigarette, using her pile of magazines to shield it from the wind. "I know why they try to keep us hidden. It's because the Government don't want foreigners to realise that the country's in such a bad state." She shrugs. "But it is, isn't it?"

Paul Kingsnorth