Croydon Council leader Mike Fisher condemned for 'unfounded' criticisms of homeless charity Nightwatch
A homelessness charity has condemned the leader of Croydon Council after he wrongly suggested experts had criticised its town-centre soup kitchen, which he also claimed users treated as "a social activity".
Nightwatch, named volunteer group of the year at the council’s own 2013 civic awards, said Coun Mike Fisher's "poorly informed" remarks could damage its reputation.
The Conservative leader told January's full council meeting that most users of the soup kitchen, run nightly at Queen's Gardens, were not in genuine need and used it as a place to drink and eat free food.
His comments were purportedly based on information from the Westminster Drug Project (WDP), a drug and alcohol support charity commissioned to conduct outreach work for Croydon Council.
Coun Fisher said: "Of the clients known to our service, only two or three we could say were actually in need of the service.
"For their client group, it seemed to be more of a social gathering and a reason to hang around Queen's Gardens and continue drinking."
The comments followed the emergence of a report in November in which the council and the Metropolitan Police outlined plans to use "all available byelaws" to force the soup kitchen, run by Nightwatch for 37 years, to close because of concerns concerns about anti-social behaviour.
The plans were later dropped.
But in a letter to Jad Adams, Nightwatch's chair of trustees, WDP distanced itself from Coun Fisher's remarks.
Danny Heckman, service manager, said: "WDP was not present at the meeting in question and we do not recognise the statements or opinions expressed in our absence; the comments certainly do not in any way represent our views.
"WDP seeks to work in harmony with all Croydon service providers and we hope to continue doing so now and in future."
Confronted about the letter by Coun Toni Letts in Monday's full council meeting, Coun Fisher stood his comments and said he would investigate why WTP were "saying now not what they were saying previously".
He said: "I am assured that these are the comments that were made by WDP, so there are some questions you could ask about the difference between what they are telling the council and what they are telling you they are telling the council.
"I will certainly investigate that."
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Adams told the Croydon Guardian: "Coun Fisher accepted there was a clear conflict of information and, though short of an apology, I think it is the best we are going to get from him.
Croydon Council leader Mike Fisher
"I treated it as a matter of some seriousness as Coun Fisher’s remarks could lower our standing in the estimation of councillors, officers and the public.
"We are a properly constituted charity and our trustees, committee members and some of our volunteers have positions in society which rely on the confidence of the people of Croydon, local businesses and such official bodies as the Charities Commission.
"We are certainly not above criticism, but that criticism must be based on fact and discussed with us before being aired in a public forum."
He also criticised the council leader's claim that the council was only aware of "two or three" users of the soup kitchen that "were actually in need of the service".
Nightwatch says it hands food, clothes, duvets and toiletries to about 80 to 100 people each night at weekends, with about half that during the week.
Mr Adams said: "It is a shame to see how poorly informed Coun Fisher is about our activities. Most of the people we see are not street homeless but neither are they there to 'socialise'.
Nightwatch chair Jad Adams
"Many of the people we now see are working, but are not earning enough to afford even their poor quality accommodation and food.
"A small minority of our clients have drink or drug issues, and they do engage with specialist services, but they also need food and encouragement to living a productive life.
"We provide that emotional and spiritual support by our constant presence in the often chaotic lives of people who usually have no family to turn to."
The charity plans to relocate the soup kitchen when nearby Taberner House has been demolished and replaced with flats, work which is expected to be completed in 2015.
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