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”.
“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 35 km 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.
Dudley said the genuinely homeless, having rejected help, were on the streets by “voluntary choice”.
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 said.
The council’s plans have been condemned by, among others, the Conservative MP for Maidenhead — Prime Minister Theresa May.
Murray James, 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.
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.
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”.
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,” said the pensioner. — AFP