Blair's official attacks charity help for homeless

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AS HOMELESSNESS charities prepare to launch a new initiative today to ensure that no one sleeps rough over the millennium, they have been accused of "perpetuating" the problem by providing soup, sleeping bags and kindness,

Louise Casey, the Government's "homelessness tsar" and a former deputy director of the homelessness charity Shelter, said hand-outs encouraged people to sleep on the streets. At present there are thought to be around 2,000 people who sleep rough.

"With soup runs and other kinds of charity help, well-meaning people are spending money servicing the problem on the streets and keeping it there. Even The Big Issue is perpetuating the problem," said Ms Casey, appointed head of the Government's Rough Sleepers' Unit in February. "There is a plethora of services on the streets. You can get a better sleeping bag on the Strand [in London] than you can buy in the camping shop Blacks."

Reacting to the allegations that The Big Issue was encouraging people on to the streets, Sally Steinton, director of the magazine, said: "I'd be horrified if anyone was saying that. The Big Issue gives people access to a legitimate income as an alternative to begging. Many of our sellers don't even live on the streets, but in hideous hostels and bed and breakfasts."

Yesterday was not the best of days to put Ms Casey's views to John O'Brien, who sells The Big Issue in the North. British Legion poppy sellers had made serious inroads into his takings, proving, if nothing else, that selling the magazine is a commercial enterprise for him, not the well- meaning vehicle for charity which Ms Casey seemed to suggest. "What will they do with the homeless if there's no prop?" asked Mr O'Brien, 42, who buys copies of the magazine for 40p and sells them for pounds 1. "I don't want to be here. I've got plans to get back into the catering profession but without this job only crime could keep my head above water now.

"The Big Issue is encouraging enterprise," added Mr O'Brien, who shared his pitch with a poppy seller in St Ann's Square, Manchester. "They call us beggars but we have to re-invest 40 per cent of the money to buy more papers. If that's not enterprise what is? This is not the hand-out people seem to think it is."

Chris Holmes, director of Shelter, insisted yesterday that there was a need for emergency help for those on the street. However, he added that Shelter did want to see a shift in emphasis from short-term to long-term work with homeless people. "We do need ... permanent solutions which help people off the street so that they can rebuild their lives," he said.

The Millennium Plus scheme, which is launched today by Shelter and another homelessness charity, Crisis, aims to provide beds for everyone sleeping on the streets at the start of the new year. The England-wide project, which runs from 29 December to 12 January, will set up shelters in 13 cities. Homeless people will be offered counselling and advice on finding a home.