Dispersal of homeless people criminalises them

A research study carried out by several criminologists in ten towns in England and Wales finds that demands for public space only end up recycling the problem of homelessness. Several English newspapers echoed the news, including The Guardian.

Councils using Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) to impose £100 fines aimed at controlling so-called ‘anti-social behaviour’ do nothing more than cause homeless people to come back to the same space time and time again.

The study has found that the dispersal of homeless people from city centres fails to stop this antisocial behaviour and instead causes a wrongful criminalisation of these people.

Research carried out by Sheffield Hallam University, with final recommendations for fairer treatment of people living on the streets, has been endorsed by Crisis, the homelessness charity. Councils in England and Wales using PSPO to impose £100 fines to control or prohibit behaviour such as drinking, pitching tents or sleeping in public space, simply see that with people living on the streets, this issue is not solved.

Orders are also misused to target behaviour that might not be considered antisocial, such as begging or sleeping rough, where an adverse effect is unlikely. What is more, in some cases homeless people have described the physical and verbal abuse they have received from police officers.

PSPOs have been used in England since 2014 with the aim of deterring behaviour deemed anti-social, but the focus on their impact on rough sleepers comes amid rising homelessness caused by an increase in evictions. Nearly 20,000 homes in England and Wales were left empty due to evictions during the 2021/22 period, almost 9,000 more than the previous period, according to annual figures released by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

In a seaside town in the east of England, for example, where begging, drug use, street drinking, urination and defecation, sleeping in public places or pitching tents are prohibited, you can often see locals or tourists strolling around while eating or drinking and this legislation does not apply to them.

A spokesman for the National Police Chiefs Council believes that recent joint work with Crisis has helped ensure that officers are able to understand why people end up sleeping rough, what support they need and, most importantly, what can be done to help them escape homelessness.

Cllr Nesil Caliskan from the Local Government Association’s safer and stronger communities board believes that PSPOs should be used as part of a broader set of measures that tie in with support services to help address the intrinsic causes of homelessness.

In other words, the dispersal powers associated with PSPOs have created vicious cycles of intimidation, dispersal and displacement that only recycle the problem of people living on the street rather than deterring, let alone preventing, the problems associated with homelessness. This would be one of the main conclusions of the study according to Peter Squires, Emeritus Professor of Criminology and Public Policy at the University of Brighton.


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