E&E | Taking tents from Exeter homeless and on-the-spot fines dropped from controversial PSPO plans

E&E

30 November 2016

Taking tents from Exeter homeless and on-the-spot fines dropped from controversial PSPO plans

by Alex Richards

Controversial plans for a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) covering Exeter city centre, revised after public outcry, are up for consultation.

The powers would help authorities in the city clamp down on anti social behaviour.

However, strong concern was voiced nationally that the proposed powers granted by the PSPO went too far, criminalising the homeless rather than helping them.

Reflecting public opinion, the council has returned with proposals which have either dropped or revised certain aspects of their proposals.

In particular, controls on street encampments have been completely removed from the plans.

Controls on begging have been limited to solely restrict aggressive begging, where people feel intimidated.

In addition, on-the-spot fixed fines for anti social behaviour have been replaced with notices issued after the offence.

An option would be available for “positive action”, including Acceptable Behaviour Contracts.

The revised proposals will be put to residents and businesses in a series of local public meetings in areas of the city the PSPO would directly cover.

The authority revealed it had received more than 1,200 responses following a four month consultation exercise into whether a PSPO should be introduced.

Cllr Rob Hannaford, Exeter City Council’s Lead Councillor for Place said: “Consultation is never a box ticking exercise – especially with something as important as a Public Space Protection Order.

A demo against the PSPO earlier this year

“However many residents and businesses in Exeter are suffering from the effects of chronic antisocial behaviour and we must be in a position to help them if there is an option to do so.

Adding: “I believe these revised plans get that balance right.”

In February this year, comedian Mark Thomas held a demonstration outside Exeter Civic Centre over the PSPO plans.

He labeled it a “bullies charter” and “mean-spirited rubbish.”

“These orders are all about keeping city centres nice and clean for a good shopping experience,” added Mr Thomas,

“But life has little blemishes and the council’s attitude is the mentality of a shopping mall security guard. It’s bullying, nasty and vicious.”

The proposals will go before the council in February next year.

Here’s when and where the public meetings have been scheduled:

Monday December 5 at 7pm, Riverside Church & Conference Centre, 13-14 Okehampton Street

Tuesday December 6 at 6pm, Guildhall (businesses only)

Wednesday December 7 at 7pm, Exeter Community Centre, 17 St. David’s Hill

Thursday December 8 at 7pm, St. Sidwell’s Primary School, York Road

Futher reading:
Read the article on the E&E website

Read the article on the E&E Facebook timeline

Devon & Cornwall Police | FoI Request 4896/16 – Begging

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Devon & Cornwall Police

Freedom of Information Act Request No: 4896/16

Begging and Vagrancy Act 1824 I understand that begging is defined as the solicitation of money and/or food, especially in the street. Since December 2003, begging has been made a recordable offence.

Q1. How many incidents of begging have been recorded in the period 01 August 2015 to 31 July 2016?
193.

The number of incidents recorded in Exeter were 52

Q2. How many of these incidents resulted in the person begging being asked to move on or receive a word of warning?
Of those incidents attended, 75 resulted in an individual being moved on or given words of advice.

Of the attended incidents in Exeter, 20 resulted in an individual being moved on or given words of advice

Q3. How many of these incidents resulted in the person begging being prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act 1824?
Of those incidents attended, one was crimed for the offence of “fail to comply with a section 35 direction excluding a person from an area” [ADDITIONAL NOTE: this was issued under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014].

The one incident that was crimed was in Torquay.

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Guardian | In a new era of official nastiness, it’s suddenly a crime to be homeless

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10 March 2016

In a new era of official nastiness, it’s suddenly a crime to be homeless

 

by John Harris

Instead of addressing the causes of homelessness, local authorities are using public space protection orders to displace, fine and punish the vulnerable.

Illustration of person sleeping on bench

 ‘All over the country, police and local councils are criminalising begging and rough sleeping, seemingly trying to push such mounting problems out of sight.’ Photograph: Nate Kitch

week ago, a case involving a homeless man called Ashley Hackett was thrown out of court in Brighton. He had been arrested by a plain-clothes police officer for asking a passer-by for 10p, an episode that triggered reports about Sussex police arresting 60 people on similar grounds in 2015 alone.

The story exploded in the pages of the Brighton Argus: local MP Caroline Lucas said she could not see “how criminalising desperate people for begging is helpful”; 30,000 people signed a petition decrying the policy responsible – and then, in the final denouement, prosecutors decided that the case was not in the public interest, and a district judge called time on the whole pathetic affair. In among the small print, there lurked truly Kafkaesque details, such as Hackett’s lawyer’s insistence that “he pleaded not guilty to begging because the offence says you’ve got to place yourself in that location to beg. He says he’s homeless and that’s where he lives.”

Unfortunately, the end of that case will probably have no effect on a monstrous shift in policy and official attitudes towards homeless people being rolled out around the country. As in-depth reporting in the Guardian this week has highlighted, rough-sleeping in England is up nearly a third year-on-year, and the figures have doubled since 2010: a plainly shameful fact that underlines the sense of a government locked into a grim re-enactment of the 1980s. Meanwhile, all over the country, police and local councils are criminalising begging and rough sleeping, seemingly trying to push such mounting problems out of sight.

Which brings us to a particularly horrible policy instrument known as public space protection orders (or PSPOs), brought in by the coalition government in 2014. As with New Labour’s antisocial behaviour orders, this new legal invention creates opportunities to criminalise hitherto non-criminal behaviour – but instead of Asbos’ focus on individuals, PSPOs are defined by particular areas.

The basic idea is simple enough. Designate a particular area, specify the behaviour you want to outlaw, and you’re off. In certain areas of Nottinghamshire, Bassetlaw’s Labour council has prohibited people under 16 “gathering in groups of three or more”; in Hillingdon, the Tories who run the borough have criminalised feeding pigeons in the park and, for young people in certain places, “gathering in groups of two or more persons unless going to or from a parked vehicle or waiting for a scheduled bus at a designated bus stop”. Obviously, those actions look comically draconian. But when PSPOs are applied to homeless people, the sense of punitive nastiness goes off the scale.

We are essentially talking about the policy equivalent of those spikes now affixed to modern buildings as a matter of course, in case anyone thinks of bedding down for the night. In Folkestone in Kent, a PSPO covers drinking, rough sleeping and begging; the latter is also a potential criminal act in Corby, Swindon and Oxford (where the council says it only applies to “aggressive” begging, though that includes simply asking for money near a cashpoint). In Wrexham, similar sanctions now apply to sleeping in a town centre park. Failure to comply entails a possible on-the-spot fine of £100 – this is for homeless people, let’s not forget – and, if the case goes to court, a penalty of up to £1,000. It is seemingly too early for cases to start colliding with the judicial system, but when they do, the waste of public money and chaotic fallout will speak for itself.

Nonetheless, the idea is catching on. Recent Freedom of Information requests by the Vice website discovered that at least 36 local councils in England and Wales “have introduced or are working on PSPOs which criminalise activities linked to homelessness”. In some places, there has been loud controversy about what is afoot: protests in Exeter, a U-turn in Newport, and another successful campaign in Hackney, east London, that last year forced the councilto back down.

But all too often there’s a sense of dull inevitability: in the absence of any real local or national scrutiny, councils do what they like, and no one really cares. Put another way: these days, if something happens in Corby, Swindon or Wrexham, can it really be said to have happened at all?

Moreover, as the Brighton case proves, the story runs much wider than PSPOs. Aside from London and Bristol, the city I visit most often is Manchester, where rough sleeping has exploded and, despite a more enlightened attitude to homeless people than you see in some other places, the city council and local landlords spent some of 2015 locked into an on-off game of injunctions, clearances, and ongoing bad feeling.

As a dry space long used by homeless people was suddenly cleared and fenced off – which is how it remains – and protest camps set up by homeless people spread across the city, the council won an injunction against anyone pitching a tent, which went as far as listing the items (sleeping bags, cardboard boxes) that were still permitted, and led to homeless people facing fines of up to £5,000. When I last visited, a new canvas encampment had sprung up on land owned by Manchester University, close to Piccadilly station: a fragile mini-shanty town, symbolising the fact that in the surrounding regenerated wonderland, scores of homeless people seem to have been reduced to an inconvenience.

At the heart of all this, there is often a kind of municipal Trump-ism, whereby police and crime commissioners, senior officers and politicians of all parties affect a crass language of crackdowns and zero tolerance, while doing little to get to grips with the actual issue. Obviously, they can account for their actions in terms of austerity: if average local authority funding for services helping people avoid homelessness was cut by 45% between 2010 and 2015, and homelessness and rough-sleeping are reaching such uncontrollable heights, what else can they do?

The answer to that is simple enough: whatever your intentions, once you start blankly criminalising people who need serious and wide-ranging help, you surely risk shutting down any argument for that kind of assistance ever returning. Fines and arrests back up the rightwing idea of character failure; George Osborne sleeps that bit more easily.

Here, though, is perhaps the most awful aspect of what’s happening. If the official attitude to people who sleep on the streets looks like cold contempt, we shouldn’t be all that surprised if that is reflected not just in public indifference and hostility, but in outright acts of inhumanity.

Back in Brighton, this week brought news of a homeless man suffering burnsafter his sleeping bag and cardboard shelter were set on fire. Vulnerability to violence is often at the heart of living without a home: if we reduce people to being annoying untouchables, maybe that’s the kind of terrible thing that will happen more often.

 

The language of homelessness

It is important that we are clear about the language of homelessness – throughout my writing on this blog , and elsewhere, I will try to use the following terms:

Ambulant begging – The practice of walking up to people to ask for money, as opposed to static begging. Can be an unintended consequence of enforcement action taken against the more visible practice of static begging.

Anti-social behaviour (ASB) – is defined as “Behaviour by a person which causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household as the person”. (Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003 & Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011)

Assertive outreach – A way of engaging clients and organising and delivering care via a specialised team to provide intensive, highly-coordinated assessment, referral and flexible support. Characterised by a persistent, long-term presence and approach to building relationships.

Begging – Asking people for money, and in this context includes behaviours which include poor-quality busking, crafts etc.

Designing-out – Adapting, changing and designing the built environment to deter behaviours that are deemed undesirable or anti-social. (E.g. removing benches in areas frequented by street drinkers, gating shop doorways to prevent rough sleeping etc.)

Enforcement – Assertive and potentially punitive actions under legislative powers designed to deter, prevent, disrupt or punish crime and anti-social behaviour.

Exit offer – A comprehensive and accessible range of responsive, flexible social support – delivered within a multi-agency framework – designed to meet an individual’s multiple and complex needs at the same time, in order to achieve a sustainable exit from street-attached lifestyles.

High-yield [begging] sites – Locations with a built environment that are sites of repeat begging activity because they are perceived to be particularly lucrative. Examples include ATMs, night-time economy venues, and outside shops of a particularly high footfall.

Homeless – “You should be considered homeless if you have no home in the UK or anywhere else in the world available for you to occupy. You don’t have to be sleeping on the streets to be considered homeless.” (Shelter.) People may still be considered homeless who are living in squats, in temporary arrangements with friends / family with no long-term prospect of settled accommodation, etc.

Multiple and complex needs – The experience of several problems at the same time, such as mental ill-health, homelessness, drug and alcohol misuse, offending, and family breakdown. People with multiple and complex needs may have ineffective contact with services that are designed to deal with one problem at a time, and are are often trapped living chaotic lives.

New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) – also called “legal highs”, NPS are defined by the present government as, “‘Psychoactive drugs, newly available in the UK, which are not prohibited by the United Nations Drug Conventions but which may pose a public health threat comparable to that posed by substances listed in these conventions.’ They are currently legally available in retail shops and through online distributors, but are the subject of draft legislation. (Psychoactive Substances Bill, 2015-16)

Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) – A public spaces protection order is an order that identifies a specific public place and gives powers to the local authority to prohibit specified behaviours in the restricted area and/or requires specified things to be done by persons carrying on specified activities in that area. The order may not have effect for more than 3 years and the Local Authority must consult with the chief officer of the police and the local policing body before issuing the order.Failure to comply with a public spaces protection order is an offence. Exeter City Council is currently consulting about imposing a PSPO in the city centre.[1]

Rough sleeping – Also called “street homelessness”, a type of homelessness where an individual quite literally is reduced to living and sleeping in open, public spaces – whether through circumstances or choice. Many people who sleep rough will suffer from multiple health conditions, such as mental health problems and drug misuse, and they are also in greater danger of violence, suicide and premature death than the general population.

Sex work – The exchange of sexual services for material compensation – and this can include cash, accommodation, and drugs / alcohol. Sex work is usually grouped as indoor (escorting, massage parlours, brothels) or on-street (outdoor), with the latter being considered far more risky, and associated with more chaotic lifestyles. Exeter has little or no on-street sex industry.

Shoplifting – An acquisitive crime that occurs when someone steals merchandise offered for sale in a retail store. Repeat and prolific shoplifting behaviour can be associated with class A drug use, and some police forces are reporting increases in shoplifting caused by destitution.

Street activity – A broad, generic term for a range of street-based anti-social behaviour, including rough sleeping, begging, street drinking etc.

Street-attachment – A term that recognises the “pull” that street-based lifestyles and peer relationships may have on individuals – including those that are now housed. “Street-attached” individuals may still spent significant periods of time on the street, remain part of street communities, and engage in street-based anti-social behaviour.

Street community / street population – A broad term for groups of people who are street-attached, and engage in street-based anti-social behaviour.

Street drinking – Consumption of (often high-strength) alcohol in a public setting outside of licensed premises. Street drinking can be associated with increased anti-social behaviour, litter, and aggression.

Vulnerably housed – A term for people who are technically housed, but where their accommodation is sub-standard, not sustainable or otherwise not assured, or where it is not suitable to their needs or possibly even detrimental to their health and wellbeing.

[1] http://exeter.gov.uk/pspo/