Dispersing homeless people fails to stop antisocial behaviour, finds study

<span>Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock

Dispersing rough sleepers from town centres fails to stop so-called antisocial behaviour and wrongly criminalises homeless people, a study of 10 towns by criminologists has found.

Councils in England and Wales using public space protection orders (PSPOs) to levy £100 fines to control or ban behaviours such as drinking, pitching tents and sleeping in public simply see homeless people come back later, according to research by Sheffield Hallam University with recommendations for fairer treatment endorsed by Crisis, the homelessness charity.

The orders are also being wrongly used to target behaviour that could not be considered antisocial – such as being “in a position to beg” or sleeping at night – where a detrimental effect was unlikely. And in some cases homeless people have described physical and verbal abuse from enforcing officers.

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The Home Office has repeatedly told councils and police that PSPOs “should not be used to target people based solely on the fact that they are homeless or rough sleeping”.

“The misuse of public spaces protection orders and other antisocial behaviour powers are disproportionately criminalising people experiencing street-sleeping homelessness,” said Dr Vicky Heap, co-author of the report.

The report concluded “dispersal and displacement tactics did not stop or deter the behaviours of people experiencing street homelessness” and “there was consensus amongst our participants that the way the PSPO was policed, such as moving people on and tipping away alcohol, did not solve the underlying antisocial behaviour problems”.

PSPOs have been used since 2014 to deter behaviours ranging from dog fouling to joy-riding, but the focus on their impact on rough sleepers comes amid rising homelessness caused by landlord evictions. Close to 20,000 households in England were made homeless by landlords using section 21 notices in 2021/22, up from almost 9,000 the previous financial year, annual figures released last week by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

The Sheffield Hallam researchers interviewed dozens of rough sleepers about PSPOs.

In one town in the south-east of England, researchers were told by Olivia about “bullies in badges” who enforced the rules.

“What’s the difference from them drinking outside in the pub sitting on a chair or someone walking past having a can?” said Harry. “There’s no difference at all.”

In a seaside town in the east of England where begging, drug use, street drinking, urination and defecation, sleeping in public places and erecting tents were all banned, Elliott described “a Scottish guy … he’s eating in the high street, he got told no one wants to see you eat in the high street, they’ll see a homeless guy eating in the high street, put it away or whatever”.

James reported being called “fucking dirty junkie, fucking homeless tramp, all sorts”, by enforcement officers.

Edward said people developed tactics in response, such as deep pockets to hide alcohol.

“It is like smuggling really,” he said. “‘Yellow jackets!!! Hide your beers, hide everything’.”

Several said they recognised there was sometimes unacceptable antisocial behaviour, but said too often reasonable behaviour was threatened with punishment.

“The dispersal powers associated with the PSPO have created vicious cycles of intimidation, dispersal and displacement which merely recycle the homelessness problem rather than go any way towards deterring – let alone preventing – the problems associated with homelessness,” said Peter Squires, emeritus professor in criminology and public policy at the University of Brighton.

The chair of the Local Government Association’s safer and stronger communities board, Cllr Nesil Caliskan, said: “PSPOs … should be used as part of a wider package of measures that link up with support services to help address the root causes of homelessness.”

A spokesperson for the National Police Chiefs Council said: “Work we have undertaken with Crisis will go a long way to ensuring officers are able to understand why people end up homeless, what support they need the most and, crucially, what can be done to help them escape homelessness.”

The Home Office has been approached for comment.