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Arrests in Leeds

February 10 2011
Vagrancy Act being used to prosecute rough sleepers

Police in Leeds are increasing their drive to move homeless people out of the city centre by prosecuting rough sleepers.

The controversial initiative, known as "rough sleeper sweeps", sees officers patrol the city in the early hours of the morning to catch people asleep on the streets. Anyone found sleeping rough is given a caution under the Vagrancy Act and referred to the councils Street Outreach Team in a bid to help them find accommodation. But if they are found again, they are arrested and prosecuted.

Chief Inspector Vernon Francis said: "Rough sleepers are a serious issue in the city centre, not just because they cause antisocial behaviour but also because these people need help to turn their lives around.

"Moving them on is only a temporary solution, which is why we are committed to working with partners to help find them a home, particularly in the run-up to Christmas when temperatures regularly drop below freezing.

"By helping them find permanent accommodation, we are putting a stop to the antisocial behaviour problems and helping them get their lives back on track."

The tactic has provoked criticism from some homeless groups, however, with many believing it to be too heavy-handed and not properly addressing the issue. Simon Community trustee David Clark said: "In London, we have seen police tactics such as Operation Poncho, where rough sleepers were hosed down and moved on. This kind of policy is not addressing the root causes of why people are sleeping rough and simply displaces them elsewhere.

"Using the law to deal with rough sleepers is just one of the many, many tools available and it should not be the first."

The sweeps first started in August but were intensified over the Christmas period, when temperatures in the Yorkshire city plummeted below zero. It is a joint operation with the City Neighbourhood Policing Team, Leeds City Council Street Outreach Team and Safer Leeds. Officers and police community support officers visit known haunts of rough sleepers at 6am each weekday.

Police have hailed the policy a success, saying that when it was first launched in August, 50 people were found sleeping rough on the city streets. But their daily patrols have been reduced to every other day and officers say they now rarely find anyone sleeping rough.

From August to December, 28 people received warnings for sleeping rough; and of these, 13 were arrested after being found sleeping rough for a second time. Chief Inspector Francis added: "We have taken action after listening to the concerns of residents and businesses, and we are keen to hear if any rough sleepers return to the city.

"By reporting these people, we can find them as soon as possible, and help them off the streets."

Police have also released a video of them moving people on. Council-run shelter St Georges Crypt, which looks after homeless people, said beds were available for homeless people in the city and that they had 21 a night after a recent refurbishment. And they said the city councils "Severe Weather Protocol", which runs when temperatures drop, meant there would always be somewhere for homeless people to sleep during the night.

Rob McCartney, Leeds City Council housing strategy and commissioning manager, also said there were emergency bed spaces in the city during extreme weather.