AFP/Windsor, United Kingdom
In picturesque Windsor, in the shadow of the castle where Queen Elizabeth II spends her weekends, a dozen homeless people shelter from the cold in a jumble of blankets and cardboard boxes.
But with less than five months to go until the May 19 wedding of her grandson Prince Harry and US actress Meghan Markle in the mediaeval castle's chapel, the local authority's bid to sweep the homeless off the streets has triggered indignation.
Simon Dudley, the Conservative leader of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead council, has urged the local Thames Valley Police force to take action against their ‘aggressive begging and intimidation’.
‘A large number of adults that are begging in Windsor are not in fact homeless,’ he wrote in a letter, while those that were genuinely homeless had rejected secure accommodation in order to keep begging.
‘This is creating a concerning and hostile atmosphere for our residents and the seven million tourists who come to Windsor each year.’
The level of interest in Windsor, some 20 miles (35 kilometres) west of London, is ‘set to multiply’ ahead of the royal wedding, he added.
According to the business valuation consultancy Brand Finance, the event should draw hundreds of thousands of extra tourists to the town, normally home to just 30,000 people, in 2018.
The British economy could be set to benefit to the tune of £500 million ($680 million, 565 million euros), they claimed.
- Homeless by 'choice' -
Dudley said the genuinely homeless, having rejected help, were on the streets by ‘voluntary choice’.
Sheltering from the wintry wind, Stephanie, who has been in the town centre for two years after suffering mental illness, insisted: ‘I don't choose to sit here.’
‘Whatever people give me, they give me. I don't choose to ask for money to get given something to eat, like sandwiches,’ she told AFP.
The council's plans have been condemned by, among others, the Conservative MP for Maidenhead -- Prime Minister Theresa May.
Murray James, the Windsor Homeless Project manager, was all the more shocked by the proposed clampdown as Harry and his brother Prince William have long been involved in work with the homeless -- William having even slept rough by a bridge in London.
‘I am pretty sure they're as outraged by the comments that have been made as I am and many of the Windsor residents are,’ James told AFP in the church where the project offers hot meals, clothes and a shower.
Regardless of the royal marriage, the authorities should pursue the reasons why people end up on the streets rather than the homeless themselves, he said.
‘It's a constant problem,’ he said.
‘We've always had between 12 and 15 people sleeping rough. The majority of those people don't beg.’
He claimed there was a lack of emergency accommodation in the town and deplored the state of the housing provided by the local authority -- often ‘infested with rats’, he said.
- 'A lovely day' -
Many passers-by in Windsor barely take notice of its homeless population.
Peggy Outhwaite said she was uncomfortable waiting for the bus while a homeless man took up residence in the bus shelter.
‘I don't think that they should be here,’ she said of the homeless.
‘This is a royal town and Harry should have his day -- and a lovely day at that,’ the pensioner told AFP.
Derek Prime, who runs a souvenir shop already selling mugs and trinkets with Harry and his fiancee's faces on, doubted the council's claims to have proper accommodation in place.
Dudley ‘really wants to come out here and spend a night on the street just to see what it's like,’ he said.
Thames Valley Police commissioner Anthony Stansfeld, an elected official, is preparing a response to Dudley's letter.
Last month, Dudley complained on Twitter of the ‘epidemic of rough sleeping and vagrancy’ in the royal town.
But the local police hit back on the social media network, saying: ‘Housing is the responsibility of the council but it is better that agencies work together so people don't become homeless.’
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