As the world’s media descends on Windsor ahead of the royal wedding on Saturday, the town’s homeless population have found themselves in the spotlight.
Reports that homeless people’s belongings were being removed by police to be stored securely over the weekend are being met with outrage on social media.
But local police say that no one is being forced to give up their belongings and that the initiative – a collaboration between the police, local council and homeless charities – was designed for the benefit of people who spend nights on the streets, known in the UK as “rough sleepers.”
“It’s all voluntary,” said Melanie Adams, a spokeswoman for Thames Valley Police. “Homeless people are not being targeted.”
She explained that the plan would spare rough sleepers the annoyance of their belongings being searched multiple times – as anyone in Windsor over the wedding period can expect – or removed as a security risk if left unattended.
“Anyone with large items that are deemed to be a security risk are likely to have those items removed,” she said.
Speaking to CNN last month, before the plan had been announced, Stuart, who sleeps rough in Windsor and who did not want to give his last name, was resigned to any plan the police devised.
“They can do what they want,” he said. “It doesn’t matter about what people want, they will do what’s best to look after the royal family at the end of the day,” he said.
Sunny, a homeless man who also did not want to give his last name, was frustrated that there was no plan to make permanent housing available to the handful of homeless people in the town center.
“Think about the amount of money they’re spending on the wedding,” he said. “That’s taxpayers’ money, isn’t it? You’d think they could help us out with houses or something like that, but they can’t house 10 or 12 people.”
He’s also keen to dispel any idea that asking for spare change from passersby is a profitable business.
“They just think because the wedding’s going on … we’re making loads of money or something like that,” Sunny said. “We’re not making loads of money, we’re just about surviving. If I had a roof over my head I wouldn’t be sitting here… I do this because I’ve got no other choice.”
But Sunny has no bad feelings towards Prince Harry or his bride Meghan Markle.
“Congratulations to the guy,” he said. “If I’m here, I’ll enjoy the festivities as much as everyone else.”
‘A beautiful town in a sadly unfavourable light’
Despite being one of the wealthiest towns in the UK, Windsor – some 35 km (22 miles) west of London – has its share of rough sleepers. According to the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead, the number of homeless households and people in temporary accommodation is growing.
National attention was first focused on the issue in January, when council leader Simon Dudley wrote to the police asking for action to be taken ahead of the royal wedding against “aggressive begging and intimidation” and an accumulation of “bags and detritus.”
“The whole situation also presents a beautiful town in a sadly unfavourable light,” he wrote, sparking accusations that he was seeking the removal of rough sleepers for primarily aesthetic rather than humanitarian reasons.
He did however also write that “homelessness is completely unacceptable in a caring, compassionate community such as ours.”
Video footage emerged this week that appeared to show rough sleepers bagging up their belongings and handing them over to the police.
It triggered an especially fierce response online. Some questioned how rough sleepers who had given up their sleeping bags and personal items would cope in the days and nights until Monday.
Others pointed out the apparent double standard as royal fans arrived in Windsor armed with sleeping bags, backpacks and bunting and prepared to camp out overnight in the hopes of spotting the royal couple’s procession. They are setting up camp on the same streets where rough sleepers have bagged up their belongings and handed them over to the authorities.
‘Why haven’t these people got homes in the first place?’
A council spokesperson defended the storage scheme, telling CNN in an email that homeless people in Windsor with a local connection had been offered places to stay in the days before the wedding.
“For those not wanting to take up the offer of somewhere to stay, an offer is being made to keep their possessions safe,” the spokesperson said.
Murphy James, manager at the Windsor Homeless Project, a charity involved in developing and implementing the initiative, said he was not personally aware of any offers of accommodation, but spoke positively about the storage plan.
The police in Windsor “have been brilliant,” he said. “The police’s job is to make sure that everybody is safe – that’s what they’re doing.”
But James is disappointed at the lack of long-term solutions and wants to see more funding for social care and mental health, both in Windsor and nationwide.
“What we should be saying is: why haven’t these people got homes in the first place?” he said. “Let’s make it so that when the next high-profile event comes around, we don’t have this problem.”