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Criminalising homelessness

June 4th 2015

Rough sleepers risk a £1,000 fine if they bed down in parts of Hackney, since the east London borough became the first use new legal powers against homeless people.

Police and council workers can give rough sleepers a £100 fixed penalty notice or to take them to court where fines could reach £1,000 since the council introduced a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) at the end of April.

The council said it had not set out to criminalise homelessness but charities have warned that the measures could force those in need away from vital services, and that arresting or fining rough sleepers is likely to be counter-productive.

The government introduced PSPOs in 2014 to give councils more powers to tackle antisocial behaviour. So far councils have primarily used them to target street drinking.

Hackney council said its PSPO was designed to tackle antisocial behaviour linked to street drinking and persistent rough sleeping. The order allows police or council officers to ask people to stop doing a range of things, including begging, having a dog off a lead causing a nuisance, and “sleeping rough in doorways or other public places”.

The council’s announcement of the new order stated that “enforcement action is always the last option”.

It added: “Officers will put rough sleepers in contact with organisations that make sure they get the medical attention that they need, and help with housing.”

The council’s deputy mayor, Sophie Linden, said: “The welfare of every vulnerable person is of highest importance to us.”

She added, however: “We are trying to tackle persistent antisocial behaviour that is concentrated in specific areas and having an adverse effect on the lives of residents and visitors to the area.”

Linden said the PSPO followed months of work by the police and council to deal with persistent rough sleepers and ongoing antisocial behaviour in parts of the borough including St John’s Churchyard, which is covered by the order.

“Everyone should be able to enjoy and make use of the many public spaces that we have in our borough. Persistent street drinking and rough sleeping has been part of the antisocial behaviour in this area. People are urinating in the street, defecating in the churchyard, fighting and being abusive to members of public and spitting on passers-by.”

However the order, which covers Hackney Downs, London Fields, Broadway Market, Mare Street and Regent’s Canal, was criticised by those working with homeless people.

Connor Johnston, a barrister specialising in homelessness and a Hackney resident, said: “The purpose of these orders is to clamp down on antisocial or nuisance behaviour that impacts on the quality of life of those in the locality. There is nothing inherently antisocial about a person being forced to sleep rough and we should not be criminalising it.”

“The effect of it is simply going to be to shunt homeless people to another borough. This won’t solve anything beyond making our streets a bit ‘shinier’ and will almost certainly just make it harder for those sleeping rough to access the support services they rely on.”

Homelessness charity Crisis’s director of policy and external affairs, Matt Downie, said: “While it’s right that the police have the power to tackle genuine criminals, covering a complex issue with a wide-ranging PSPO could lead to people in dire need of support facing a counterproductive arrest or fine.

“Rough sleepers deserve better than to be treated as a nuisance – they may have suffered a relationship breakdown, a bereavement or domestic abuse. Instead, people need long-term, dedicated support to move away from the streets for good.”

Organisations also oppose the new laws in principle including the Manifesto Club, which campaigns “against the hyper-regulation of everyday life” campaigns against the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which introduced the orders.

Its director Josie Appleton describes PSPOs as “blank cheque powers”, and said: “It is astonishing that the council could bring through an order on this scale without a public consultation. This is unprecedented – every other major PSPO has had a public consultation.”

Meanwhile, Oxford city council has stepped back from including rough sleepers in a PSPO in the city centre, saying a consultation had indicated it was not likely to be the most effective way of tackling the problem. It said the proposed PSPO would not have included all rough sleepers, but a small number of people who continued to sleep rough in the city centre despite having accommodation.

Local groups had lobbied the city council to drop the plans, which they said could force homeless people away from the services set up to help them. A petition against the move attracted more than 72,000 signatures.




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