Guardian Housing | Councils should help rough sleepers, not fine them

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03 June 2015

Councils should help rough sleepers, not fine them

Rough sleeping has risen by 55% in five years but some councils are treating people forced onto the streets as criminals rather than victims

Homeless man sleeping in a doorway
Rough sleepers in parts of Hackney, east London could soon face fines of up to £1,000 and a criminal record. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/Guardian

The measure in question is the public spaces protection order (PSPO), which allows local authorities to ban or regulate any activity in defined public spaces that they believe “is likely to have a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality”. Anyone falling foul of such an order can face a £100 on-the-spot penalty or a fine of up to £1,000, and a criminal record.

At Crisis we’re deeply concerned to see local authorities including rough sleeping among the antisocial behaviour they want to ban. And we’re not alone: campaigners have already launched a petition calling on Hackney council in east London to “stop criminalising rough sleepers”, while the measures have drawn criticism in both the local and national press.

It’s not just Hackney council that is making use of PSPOs. Recently, local campaigners in Oxford persuaded Oxford city council not to include rough sleepers in a similar measure. This followed a petition signed by more than72,000 people who agreed that such a move would risk “treating rough sleepers as a problem to be dealt with rather than as individual human beings”.

Councils have argued that they only want to target a specific group of rough sleepers, or that they intend to use the measure only as a last resort. Of course, we’re not suggesting that antisocial behaviour should be ignored, and it’s hard not to sympathise with local businesses whose livelihood is affected by it. Nevertheless, homeless people are some of the most vulnerable in our society and branding them antisocial is wrong.

Anti-homeless spikes outside private flats in Southwark, London.
Last year, anti-homeless spikes were installed outside a block of luxury flats in London. Mayor Boris Johnson called them ‘ugly, self-defeating and stupid’. Photograph: Guy Corbishley/Corbis

The PSPO is just one of a number of a troubling measures designed to deter people sleeping rough. Much attention has been given recently to “defensive architecture”– including anti-homeless metal spikes in doorways and benches that prevent people lying down. All these trends are cause for concern. People in desperate circumstances deserve better than to be treated as a nuisance. They may have suffered a relationship breakdown, a bereavement or domestic abuse, and are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.

Aside from the moral aspect, such deterrent measures are also counter-productive. They do nothing to tackle the underlying causes of homelessness and make it even harder for people to access the kind of support they need to move away from the streets for good. There are more sensitive and appropriate ways of tackling homelessness.

Nobody wants to promote rough sleeping. It’s not a lifestyle choice; it’s a devastating experience used as a last resort by people who have run out of options. The issue here is the substantial rise in homelessness in recent years. Rough sleeping in England has risen by 55% since 2010 and by 79% in London. Banning it in designated areas will only move it elsewhere and further stigmatise vulnerable people.

Instead, we need to ensure no one has to sleep rough in the first place. Too often, homeless people who ask their councils for help are turned away to sleep on the streets. Instead of fines and pavement spikes, we need a change in the law so that all homeless people can get the help they need. We also need central government to make sure councils have the necessary funding to support people out of homelessness.

In the meantime, we urge local councils not to go down the road of using PSPOs against rough sleepers. Instead, they should focus their enforcement efforts on genuine criminality and antisocial behaviour, and renew efforts to get homeless people off the streets once and for all.

Jon Sparkes is chief executive of Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people

 

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