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Homeless people are being ‘disproportionately criminalised’ by anti-social behaviour laws

Academics have called for a change in policing culture and better training for officers to stop Public Spaces Protection Orders being misused against rough sleepers

People experiencing street homelessness are disproportionately criminalised by Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) designed to tackle anti-social behaviour, a new report has found.

Academics at Sheffield Hallam University found police forces in England and Wales were using PSPOs and other measures inconsistently to crack down on anti-social behaviour, with evidence that some of the laws are being stretched beyond their original intentions.

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PSPOs can be applied for by councils for a wide range of behaviours considered anti-social such as street drinking or leaving belongings on pavements and can carry a punishment of a fine up to £1,000.

Researchers called for a change in culture and improved training for police officers to prioritise support instead of enforcement when dealing with people experiencing homelessness and also urged the government to update guidance on how to use PSPOs.

“Some of the areas we looked at were handing out the most fixed penalty notices for breach of PSPOs, which are already known to make life more difficult for people experiencing street homelessness who cannot pay the fine and end up in court,” said Dr Vicky Heap, co-author of the report.

“Our research shows how important it is to use these laws correctly and ethically, prioritising support before enforcement and encouraging policing bodies to challenge poor practice.” 

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Academics spent more than a year interviewing 52 people with lived experience of street homelessness in day centres across 10 areas in England and Wales where the highest number of fixed penalty notices were issued for breaching a PSPO.

They also quizzed frontline workers in face-to-face interviews and an online questionnaire.

The researchers found rough sleepers faced action for a wide range of behaviours due to the broad definition of what counts as anti-social in the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act legislation.

For example, one rough sleeper in the East Midlands reported being issued with a dispersal order to leave the area for being in “position to beg” for sitting on the pavement. Another spoke of being moved on from warm vents while sleeping in the night.

Academics argued such behaviour did not have the detrimental effect on the local area needed to justify action.

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There were also clear differences in how people experiencing street homelessness were policed. Two rough sleepers reported facing action for street drinking while nearby a large group of students drinking wine from the bottle were left alone.

A rough sleeper in a city in south-east England who went under the name of Les in the report described fining homeless people for street drinking as a “pointless exercise and a cruel exercise” in the report.

Overall, academics found two approaches to policing across the 10 areas. Punitive PSPOs had a proactive focus to seek out people experiencing street homelessness for enforcement while performative PSPOs took an informal and reactive approach.

But rough sleepers in areas where PSPOs were in operation reported feeling “on edge” or “harassed” due to their high number of interactions with police officers. Others reported verbal or physical abuse chiefly committed by police, academics said.

Many rough sleepers said they did not know or understand the legislation being used against them, which the Sheffield Hallam academics said made them “vulnerable to criminalisation” and unable to question authorities. 

The report also questioned whether PSPOs and other measures were effective in preventing street homelessness.

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Most interviewees told researchers they were not signposted to support services after being moved on by police. Academics said the measures did little to deter people from returning to the PSPO area where the cycle of policing and dispersal would start again. This was a “missed opportunity for meaningful engagement”, the report concluded.

However, some policing bodies were praised for being supportive to people living on the street, though partnerships between police and frontline services were described as “patchy”.

“People experiencing street homelessness often face difficult interactions with police, and it’s really positive that policing is improving in many areas to promote more empathetic and constructive approaches – this is exactly what we need,” said Matt Downie, chief executive of Crisis.

“The reality is that homelessness is a public health crisis which stems from of a range of factors, including a lack of affordable homes, trauma and mental health issues. Being homeless shouldn’t automatically throw people into the criminal justice system.

“We’re proud to have campaigned for the outdated Vagrancy Act to be scrapped, and we’ll carry on doing all we can to show people that homelessness is a problem that deserves support, not punishment.” 

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Some rough sleepers reported being threatened with being arrested under the Vagrancy Act if they did not heed move on warnings.

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The almost-200-year-old legislation that criminalised rough sleeping and begging was repealed earlier this year as part of the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act but the government has consulted on replacement powers despite opposition.

“Police forces continue to work with a range of partners on matters surrounding homelessness and rough sleeping,” said the National Police Chief’s Council’s lead for anti-social behaviour and homelessness, deputy chief constable Andy Prophet.

“These are complex societal issues that can only be solved with long-term thinking and effective collaboration. The role of the police it is to tackle crime and ASB which may be linked to some street communities.

“Other organisations, including local authorities, drug, alcohol and mental health workers, must address the underlying reasons for homelessness.

“The recent study by Sheffield Hallam University rightly highlights the importance of partnership working but does not sufficiently recognise the importance of police focussing on crime and ASB. The public, rightly, do not expect police forces to be drawn into the responsibility of other agencies.”

Human rights lawyers at Liberty have been issuing rough sleepers with legal advice to tackle police action this year. The group previously took action against Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council over PSPOs in 2020.

“We all have the right to be treated with dignity and compassion, but PSPOs criminalise people living on the streets rather than provide them with any support they may need,” said Liberty lawyer Lara ten Caten.

“It is cruel and counterproductive to criminalise poverty. As this report shows, interactions with the police can be dangerous, often leading to emotional and physical trauma. Instead of addressing the root causes of homelessness, too many councils resort to blunt powers to punish poverty and push poor people out of sight.

“As this research shows, PSPOs remain ripe for abuse. The government must scrap the power to create them once and for all.”

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