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



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.


#Exeter #PSPO | My response to the petition


Exeter City Council: Don’t Criminalise Exeter’s rough sleepers or destroy their belongings.

Screen shot 2015-12-11 at 21.47.20

Screen shot 2015-12-11 at 21.47.30

And here is my response:

Thank you for contacting me by the petition site.

I have campaigned for the rights of street homeless for many years – I have taken part in the Exeter YMCA Sleep Easy fund-raising event several times, instead of sending Christmas cards I give a sizable donation to Crisis at Christmas, I have regular contact with a local Big Issue vendor and as a volunteer with Exeter CAB assist in helping the homeless exert their rights.

In the body of your petition you ask me to “abandon the PSPO proposals and work with homelessness charities and other relevant bodies instead to work out non-coercive strategies for providing meaningful and long-term support for vulnerable people in Exeter.

I hope you have heard about the pro-active work Exeter City Council [ECC] is doing o help rough sleepers on the streets of Exeter?

Instead of waiting for outside temperatures to fall below zero for 3 consecutive nights before opening up additional spaces under the Government’s Severe Weather Provision, ECC is a key partner driving the Safe Sleep Exeter initiative forward.

The Safe Sleep Exeter partnership is keen to  offer a safe place to sleep for those with no other options.

Through pooled resources from a variety of agencies and partners, under this scheme an additional 26 spaces to accommodate rough sleepers will be available from 1 December to 28 February, including specific provision for women.

Partner agencies include Devon County Council, East Devon District Council, NHS, Devon and Cornwall Police and local providers BCHA, Julian House and St Petrock’s.

It is hoped that in this safe place, ECC’s newly appointed Street Outreach team – Julian House – can engage with rough sleepers to offer them the accommodation and support they need, ideally helping them to move through into longer-term options.

This is much more satisfactory that trying to meet up with rough sleepers on the streets of Exeter.

In particular, Safe Sleep Exeter will link directly into ongoing projects such as MEAM (Making Every Adult Matter – focus on complex homeless individuals) and the development of ICE (Integrated Care Exeter) which is a strategic alliance of public, voluntary and community sector organisations.

Early in 2016, ICE will be trialling a new Health & Well Being Team which brings together existing resources to deliver a single, integrated approach. The purpose of ICE is to better meet the immediate and longer term needs of the street homeless and to ensure that only people who have a clinical need for inpatient acute care are admitted to hospital.

It is my hope that such positive engagement will actively reduce the number of rough sleepers.

Of course, this is just one visible sign of the work that Exeter City Council is undertaking – another is working with many of the same partner agencies to deliver the Exeter Wellbeing Hub at Wat Tyler House in King William Street.

The Hub (sometimes called Co-Lab) is a humanitarian community response to homelessness and other issues.

Being well aware of the complex needs of street homeless – especially those with addiction and substance abuse – the ambition is to create a recovery-focused, co-located and integrated health & wellbeing hub for people with a range of needs and capacities, based around a specialist GP surgery, but also including substance misuse, mental health, and offender management services. The new offer will integrate these services with adult learning, volunteering programmes, housing advice, personal finance & debt management, participation and citizenship programmes to create a ‘wraparound’ offer that better meets the needs of people using the hub, and creates a space for genuine integration of people, resources, expertise and systems within a holistic integrated approach.

In particular, many of the services based at the Wellbeing Hub (including Julian House) will be tasked with helping Exeter City Council more fully engage with rough sleepers.

Exeter CVS briefing on the Exeter Wellbeing Hub

But of course, rough sleeping is only the visible aspect of homelessness – it accounts for 5% of the work on homelessness carried out by Exeter City Council.

Which is why ECC is currently reviewing and revising its dusty Homelessness Strategy, with the plan to make in an agile and fleixible action plan. There is a Homelessness Task & Finish Group looking into this.

The Group presented an interim report to Scrutiny Committee: Community in November.

It is hoped that another report will be brought to Community Scrutiny early in the new year.

You rightly point out that much of the root cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing – much of this due to the pernicious attacks by  both the previous coalition Government and the current Tory one on social housing.

While the headlines of the local paper scream about each and every purpose built student accommodation block, they make little mention that such developments are freeing up houses in multiple occupation for shared housing for under-35s (housing benefit for this age range is focused on this type of property) and even returning those HMO back to family occupation.

Even under the severe Govt restrictions, ECC have built nearly 50 Council Own Build properties – each of them to eco-friendly Passivhaus standards to reduce energy costs. Nowhere near enough, but the best performance in the South West.

ECC are also robustly enforcing their s106 affordable housing strategy outlined in the Local Plan – each and every development above 10 units is delivering 35% affordable housing (the majority for social rent of 50% market rent, rather than the unaffordable *affordable* rent of 80% of market rent).

That equates to almost 600 affordable homes in the past 5 years, and there are nearly 2000 more in the pipeline – but of course, much of that could be put in jeopardy by changes announced in the Chancellor’s Comprehensive Spending Review/Autumn Statement at the end of November.

And we are already looking at creative ways to ensure this work is continues despite the threats posed by the Housing and Planning Bill 2015-16.

So after all that, I come to the Public Spaces Protection Order.

I too have concerns about PSPOs in general, and I have been paying close attention to the writings of Liberty and others on the subject.

With this in mind, I have spoken at length and in detail with portfolio holders – especially my co-councillor In Cowick, Cllr Heather Morris, who has held the Portfolio (for Customer Access) covering homelessness  since May 2015.

I had read about the plans for a PSPO in Oxford and the idea to prevent rough sleeping, specifically in public toilets.

I’ve also seen the plans to ban rough sleeping in Newport.

I was keen to ensure that we didn’t fall into the trap of seeming to criminalise the act of rough sleeping. In fact, I would go as far as to say I would be be totally and wholly opposed to the idea of criminalising rough sleeping per se.

So nowhere in the process have we considered the idea of banning rough sleepers from the streets of Exeter.

So what have we considered?

The initial report came to Community Scrutiny in September, was considered by Executive later that month and the public consultation was launched on 11/11/15.

The length of the consultation is much longer than the statutory minimum – to make sure everyone was given chance to make their views known.

I see the aim of the ECC PSPO  as means to encourage engagement with outreach workers, rather than a means to target rough sleepers – a carrot rather than a stick.

Rough sleepers have rights – but so do the other citizens, workers and businesses of Exeter. They have the right not to be intimidated or to have to face the daily ordeal of belongings left in shop doorways.

And if that means – at times – some sort of enforcement, I have to ask myself what are the limits to that enforcement?

To this end, I have spoken to some of the PCSOs who currently do the early morning shift around the city – they carry out wake-up calls for the rough sleepers.  In the main, the street homeless each morning remove their bedding when asked.

The intention behind the PSPO provision to ensure that bedding, mostly likely in the form of cardboard, isn’t left in shop doorways. So, if bedding and cardboard is continued to be removed each morning, then there will be no problem  – and no need for further action via Fixed Penalty Notices.

This is highlighted in ECC’s FAQ document to accompany the consultation:

Will this outlaw rough sleeping in the city centre?
No it will not. The Order works by seeking to clear away the shelter (tent, bedding, bivouac, and associated paraphernalia) where it has been set up in a situation likely to be considered anti-social to the general public. An offence is only caused if the person refuses to clear away their bedding and other belongings when requested to do so by an authorised officer.

Are rough sleepers being targeted?
They are not being targeted. There are support services and temporary accommodation available to people who sleep rough, but some chose not to access this support.

Sleeping rough in the city centre can place someone in a very vulnerable situation, and it is not beneficial to their health and wellbeing, so officers enforcing the Order will be briefed to signpost rough sleepers to appropriate support services.

As I said, I still have concerns – especially if enforcement officers overstep the mark that I have outlined above.

It will be essential that councillors will be able  to know what measures will be in place to alter or amend PSPOs if such a situation arises.

Throughout all of this I am looking to find a delicate – yet complex – balance between offering whole-person support and  emergency aid to the street homeless without neglecting the needs of the wider community.

I am looking to see the outcome of the public consultation before coming to an ultimate decision on the matter.

Please do take the time to respond – your views really are important in this process.

Thank you for reading this far

[and endorsed by Cllr Pete Edwards and Cllr Rosie Denham]

Further information:

Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) were brought in under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.

PSPOs specify an area where activities are taking place that are or may likely be detrimental to the local community’s quality of life.

PSPOs impose conditions or restrictions on people using that area.

Home Office: Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014: Reform of anti-social behaviour powers – Statutory guidance for frontline professionals [June 2014]

Home Office Reform of anti-social behaviour powers – Public and open spaces 

Hilary Osborne: Charities warn councils against criminalising rough sleepers [Guardian, 22 May 2015]


Liberty : Liberty calls for Oxford City Council to scrap unlawful plans to criminalise homeless people and buskers [11 June 2015]

Oxford City Council: City Centre PSPO consultation response paper [11 June 2015]

Oxford City Council: Recommendations from the Scrutiny Committee to City Executive Board on the City Centre Public Spaces Protection Order [15 October 2015]

Oxford City Council: Supplementary Report to  City Executive Board on the City Centre Public Spaces Protection Order [15 October 2015]

Oxford City Council: Notes of City Centre PSPO Panel [15 October 2015]

Oxford City Council: Suggested CEB response to the Scrutiny Committee’s recommendations [15 October 2015]

Manifesto Club: Why Oxford City Council won’t take ‘no’ for an answer [27 October 2015]


Newport Council radically overhauled its proposed PSPO, following a letter from Liberty. As originally drafted, the Order would have placed a blanket ban on begging, rough sleeping and free leaflet distribution, among other activities. Both the provisions on rough sleeping and leaflet distribution have been abandoned, while that on begging has been watered down.

Newport Council: 

Newport Council: City Centre PSPO consultation paper [24 August 2015]

The Wallich: An open letter co-signed by Shelter Cymru and Cymorth Cymru to Newport City Council raising our concerns surrounding the consultation on a potential rough sleeping ban in Newport City Centre [02 October 2015]

Liberty: Dangerous, disproportionate, unlawful: Liberty calls on Newport City Council to scrap unjustified PSPO plans [05 October 2015]

The Wallich: Newport Council to ban rough sleeping. Our response [15 October 2015]

Newport Council: City Centre PSPO consultation response paper [15 October 2015]

Shelter Cymru: Our response to Newport Council approve use of PSPO [16 October 2015]

Steven Morris: Homeless people of Newport angry at council plans to ban rough sleeping [Guardian, 25 October 2015]

Liberty: Liberty welcomes Newport City Council’s radical overhaul of unlawful and unjustified PSPO plans [25 November 2015]

Newport Council City Centre Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) was introduced to this geographical boundary in November 2015 following public consultation. The PSPO allows the council to prohibit behaviour that adversely affects the quality of life of people who live, work or visit the city centre.


Cheshire West and Chester Council has closed its consultation over a proposed PSPO which would not only fine rough sleepers and beggars in the city centre, by cruelly banning people from lying down or sleeping in a public place, it would also restrict busking to designated areas, forcing musicians to gain “approved busker” status by passing quality tests, and even criminalise anyone feeding birds in the city centre. The recommendations on the PSPO will be considered by Cabinet in January 2016.

The formal consultation period can for 12 weeks from 23 July 2015 to 15 October 2015.