200 in London protest Major's labeling of beggars as 'offensive,' 'eyesores'

May 30, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- The names echoed off the National Gallery and around Trafalgar Square as the Rev. Derek White read from a roster of 617 people who died homeless in London in the past year.

About 200 demonstrators, many ragged and scruffy and unwashed street people, gathered yesterday at the base of the square's towering statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson to protest Prime Minister John Major's condemnation of beggars as "offensive" and "eyesores."

Mr. Major, campaigning for the ruling Conservatives in European parliament elections June 9, made his remarks in a newspaper interview Friday, and repeated his criticism the next day, saying his view is "what I think millions of people in this country feel."

But in fact, he had aroused a storm of controversy, probably deliberately, many commentators thought.

"I find it a very unlovely failure of public life when people in power pick on the most despised groups in society rather than asking what the causes are," said the Rev. David Sheppard, the bishop of Liverpool.

The Sunday Telegraph, a bedrock Conservative newspaper, headlined its front-page story: "Major's beggar attack 'panders to Right.' " Many observers concluded that Mr. Major had abandoned all hope in elections for the European parliament and was trying to consolidate his position among Conservatives by courting the party's right wing.

The liberal Independent on Sunday said, "John Major sounds like the whining bore you would try to avoid at a bus stop."

Mr. Major's remarks, the Independent said, "put him somewhere to the right of Henry VIII." The 16th-century king of England proposed licensing beggars. Mr. Major urged people to report them to police.

The Conservative Party's Central Office said callers were running 2-to-1 in favor of Mr. Major. Two conservative tabloids, the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Express, supported the prime minister.

But in Trafalgar Square, the Rev. White, the London bishop's chaplain to the homeless, invoked Jesus and Mother Teresa. "Jesus identified himself with the poor, the homeless and the marginalized," he said.

The chaplain, dressed in his black cassock and wearing a purple stole, said: "I have worked amongst homeless people in the West End now for over 18 years, and the situation is far more acute now than it was in 1977.

"In the course of that time, I find I have more increasingly been called upon to conduct funerals for people who have died as a consequence of homelessness. It is not a nice thing to have to do. Many I knew personally and very well indeed."

He asked for silence as a silver-maned street worker named Harry Townsend released a cluster of black balloons, one for each of the homeless dead. They rose into a gray threatening sky past the Nelson statue above the capital.

John Battle, a spokesman for the opposition Labor Party, climbed to the granite plinth and said that it was John Major's statement that was "offensive."

"People are not supposed to be swept and swilled off the streets," he said. "People are being forced onto the streets in Britain because the policy of the government has created and generated mass homelessness in our society."

About 60,000 people are thought to be homeless in the United Kingdom, about one-third of them in London. It is estimated that 2,000 people sleep on the streets each night in Britain.

"When this is finished tonight, I'll be sleeping on the Strand," said Mick Aspin, 36, a rally monitor with a pair of British flags tattooed on his neck. "I've been doing that for 20 years."

The Strand, once the grand theater, hotel and restaurant thoroughfare of Edwardian England, now has sleepers curled up each night in many, if not most, of its shop doorways.

Mick Aspin said he never begs. Alan King, a 44-year-old unemployed railroad worker from Leicester who sleeps where he can, said that he often does.

"I'm not proud of it," he said. "I don't like begging. But the point of it is that you've got to survive."

He said that there's no work in Leicester and that he hasn't found any in London either.

"When I beg," he said, "I beg to get food. I don't drink. I beg to get something to eat. If you're on the streets, you've got to fight to survive, you've got to fight to survive."

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