Homeless people in three coastal towns in Dorset could be fined for sleeping in doorways or leaving bedding and belongings in the street under proposals Conservative councillors are trying to push through.
The Tory politicians are arguing that a tough regime is needed in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole to ease residents’ concerns and boost the area’s economy. But critics say the proposals risk criminalising some of the most vulnerable people in society rather than tackling the root cause of their situation.
The row centres on a plan for a public spaces protection order (PSPO) taking in the three towns. Officers for the local authority that covers the towns have put forward a proposal that would ban behaviour such as drinking alcohol in public while acting in an antisocial manner and causing harassment, alarm or distress.
But at a meeting of the council’s overview and scrutiny board this week, Tory councillors claimed the measures did not go far enough. They argued that begging, loitering in a public place, causing an obstruction in shop doorways or car parks and leaving unattended personal belongings such as bedding or bags should also be included.
The Tory councillor Karen Rampton said strict rules were necessary. “We know that people leaving unattended belongings causes anxiety. Shopkeepers do not want people obstructing their doorways especially in these times of Covid.”
People who violate PSPOs are liable for £100 fines that, if left unpaid, can result in summary convictions and £1,000 penalties. Rampton said the idea of the PSPO was to counter antisocial behaviour rather than targeting a particular group.
But the Liberal Democrat councillor Millie Earl said the proposals were “very cruel”. “It’s completely counterproductive to hand out a fine to someone who is already in poverty,” she said.
Six Tory councillors and one independent backed the idea of the stricter regime. The issue will be considered by the cabinet next month. Though the Tories are the largest group on the council, it is run by an alliance of other parties and the proposal could be rejected.
The Lib Dem leader of BCP council, Vikki Slade, pointed out that officers had not recommended that the council adopt the severe measures suggested by the Tories.
She said: “BCP council is committed to reducing rough sleeping by increasing access to suitable accommodation and remodelling a range of sustainable housing support pathways.”
Hundreds of people have already signed a petition against the Tory moves.
Corrie Drew, who stood for Labour in Bournemouth East in last year’s general election and works with homeless people through a group called Helping Hands, said: “Those who are homeless and rough sleeping are some of the most vulnerable and voiceless among us. The system is stacked against them being able to get housed and rejoin society.
“This proposal risks criminalising anyone sleeping in a doorway or leaving bedding outside. On any evening there may be between five and 30 homeless people in Bournemouth town centre. Officers could walk through Bournemouth town centre and issue them all with fixed penalty notices that they wouldn’t be able to pay. It’s an unfair and illogical suggestion. This would cause huge distress.”
Last year the Guardian revealed that at least 60 councils were using PSPOs to tackle behaviour associated with homelessness.
If the Tory proposals for Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole were accepted, the council could face a high court challenge. The civil rights group Liberty backed a legal challenge over a similar scheme covering only Poole. The proceedings have been stayed for the moment.
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Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at the charity for homeless people, Crisis, said: “No one should be criminalised because they have no alternative or option but to sleep on our streets, and even more so in a public health crisis. In a humane society we should not treat people this way.
“As the Home Office themselves have made clear previously, PSPOs should not be used against people sleeping rough. Instead, the way to tackle this is by preventing homelessness and rough sleeping from happening in the first place, and when it does, ensuring support and housing is available to help that person escape the streets and rebuild their life.”
Liberty lawyer Lara ten Caten said: “The clauses targeting rough sleeping and begging are cruel and discriminatory. Rough sleeping is not a choice, it’s poverty, and if you find yourself in that situation you should be able to turn to your council for help, not face being criminalised.”