Is rough sleeping anti-social?
This week local campaigners in Oxford are celebrating the success of their efforts to persuade Oxford City Council not to impose a measure which can lead to an on the spot penalty of £100 or a fine of up to £1000 and a criminal record for rough sleepers. At the same time the London Borough of Hackney has used the same provision to do just that in large parts of the borough.
The measure in question is the Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), a new power available to local authorities which allows them to prohibit or regulate any activity in defined public spaces which they believe ‘is likely to have detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality’.
Opponents have argued that PSPOs give very wide discretion to local authorities to proscribe activities; that having a ‘detrimental effect on the quality of life’ is a much lower hurdle than that previously used for restrictive measures; and what they see as a lack of effective judicial safeguards in operation.
Civil liberties aside, Crisis has been very concerned to see local authorities including rough sleeping among lists of anti-social behaviour they want to ban. It’s clear that the public shares our misgivings. The fact that Oxford even considered prohibiting it attracted more than 72000 signatures to a protest petition in a matter of days. Hackney’s PSPO crept in under the radar, but is now receiving critical scrutiny in the local and national press.
Like many homelessness organisations, Crisis see a real risk that using PSPOs to ban rough sleeping risks driving the most vulnerable people further away from vital support services. Jon Sparkes, our Chief Executive, told The Hackney Citizen that “any moves to ban and criminalise rough sleeping will be counter-productive and only make it harder for people to access the dedicated support they need to move away from the streets for good.”
Councils have argued that they only wish to target a specific group of rough sleepers, or that they intend only to use the measure as a last resort. Indeed, it is hard not to have sympathy with local businesses whose livelihood is affected by anti-social behaviour. No one argues that anti-social behaviour should be ignored.
It is surely though both dangerous and wrong to classify rough sleeping as of itself an anti-social activity, let alone one worthy of a criminal record and fine. It is to the credit of Oxford City Council that they have recognised this and omitted the offending section of their PSPO.
It is important to be clear that nobody wants to promote rough sleeping. It’s not a lifestyle choice; it is a devastating experience resorted to only by those who see no alternative or with deep-rooted problems. As Jon Sparkes says, “people in desperate circumstances deserve better than to be treated as a nuisance… The real issue here is the substantial rise in homelessness in recent years, with rough sleeping in the UK up by 55% and in London up by 79 per cent since 2010.” A PSPO will not resolve that problem.
We urge local councils not to go down the road of using PSPOs against rough sleepers and focus their enforcement efforts on genuine criminality and anti-social behaviour, of which homeless people are more often victim than perpetrator.