Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Hardy times

June 01 2009
Things are tough down in the Dorset town of Dorchester Since Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, or Asbos, were introduced under the Crime and Disorder Act in 1998, they have been a contentious social issue, particularly for people who have found themselves sleeping rough. Type 'Asbo' and 'homeless' into an internet search engine and you obtain the following local media headlines: "Homeless Asbo man to sue police"; "Radio Asbo ban silences homeless Bernie"; "Homeless man jailed for breach of Asbo"; and "Asbo bans homeless man from all churches". In the United Kingdom, an Asbo may be issued in response to "conduct which caused or was likely to cause harm, harassment, alarm or distress, to one or more persons not of the same household as him or herself and where an Asbo is seen as necessary to protect relevant persons from further anti-social acts by the defendant". Stereotyped as a tool to curtail the yobbish behaviour of be-hooded teenagers, these civil orders actually have a wide, and consequently vague, remit. From noisy neighbours to fly-tippers, dog poo and spitting on pavements, to drunks and vandals, any actions which can be complained about or cause offence to the wider public can by slapped with an Asbo, which can in turn restrict an individual or family's movements or social interaction. The Pavement has been closely monitoring the careless use of the words "antisocial behaviour" and "homeless" in the press: all too often, sleeping rough can be seen, in itself, as antisocial, when in fact street sleeping on public land, or on private property with permission, is completely legal. It is only when street sleepers disrupt or disturb other residents, businesses or authorities that an Asbo can be used. So is it fair that one person's personal choice to sleep rough, or unfortunate temporary circumstances, can be described to wider society as anti-social? Last month, Dorset police announced it would be stepping up patrols in Dorchester, a market town in the South West of England, specifically "targetting offenders behaving antisocially in the country town" . The opening sentence in the local newspaper, the Echo, proclaimed: "Police in Dorchester are stepping up patrols to combat a rising number of problems with rough sleepers in the town." The Dorset area has often been a popular retreat for rough sleepers due to the milder climate in the South of England. In nearby Weymouth, police are using the Section 30 Dispersal Order to keep the tourists happy, forcing rough sleepers to migrate to Bournemouth, Winchester and Dorchester. Like much of the South, Dorset is a largely affluent county, attracting may retired people. However, despite the local Paper's claims, a spokesperson from Dorset Police told The Pavement that at the time of going to press, no anti-social behaviour orders had been issued to rough sleepers in Dorchester. The Echo claimed police officers are taking "a pro-active approach and increased patrols in the town centre, seized alcohol and are currently working with local retailers to identify problem areas" following "a noticeable influx of vagrants in the town". The paper quoted PCSO Tom Holman as saying: "It is more the quantity of them in places like Bowling Alley Walks rather than anything they are actually doing. There can be up to 15 of them there and people can be intimidated by it." A spokesperson for Dorset police confirmed it had received complaints, including noise, drunken behaviour and abusive behaviour. When asked if they considered Dorchester to have a specific "homeless issue" , the spokesperson said: "There is a seasonal problem - as the weather gets milder and warmer, rough sleeping tends to become more frequent. The rough sleepers are typically male and of all ages, from many different areas." The police have a duty to respond to the complaints of local people, but to have these complaints inflated or exaggerated in the local media only serves to make both their lives, and those of rough sleepers, more difficult. Inspector Les Fry, the Dorchester policeman overseeing Asbos on his beat, said: "Anti-Social Behaviour Orders are a very useful tool, but they are just one of a whole range of options that deal with these sorts of issues. Each case, in which a person's behaviour is less than acceptable, will be judged on its own merits." With specific reference to rough sleepers he added: "We are working with other agencies to deal with the problem of rough sleeping in and around Dorchester and we realise that enforcement is only part of the solution." As the old wartime adage goes, careless talk costs lives, and The Pavement will continue to observe how often the words Asbo and homeless are interchanged.