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Housing

Homelessness groups question government plans for more police collaboration

Ministers have suggested that help from law enforcement could contribute to ending homelessness, but their approach has received mixed responses.

Homelessness groups have questioned government plans to involve police more in outreach work.

Earlier this week, minister for homelessness Eddie Hughes brought together police officers from 10 forces across England to discuss what could be done to help end the crisis. The most recent count found a total of 2,688 people were estimated to be sleeping rough for at least one night in 2020 in England.

The idea of the meeting was to look into what more can be done to equip officers and local authorities to better understand and respond to the different situations rough sleepers find themselves in.

But the move has been met with caution by homeless charities and outreach groups due to the history of enforcement against people experiencing homelessness.

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“All public-facing agencies should have a role to play in supporting rough sleepers and keeping them safe, including the police,” said Balbir Chatrik, director of policy at Centre, the UK’s leading youth homelessness charity. “That said, any police involvement should be carefully considered and focused on providing help.

“In recent years there have been a number of reports of Public Space Protection Orders and other ‘deterrent’-based activities, which don’t do anything to end rough sleeping and in some cases only serve to criminalise those with nowhere safe to stay.”

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“Ensuring interactions with the police and other agencies are largely positive is only possible when charities and councils have the resources they need to provide support. The government continues to invest in this area but the funding tends to be piecemeal and targeted at more entrenched rough sleepers, making it difficult to plan and support other groups such as the vulnerable young people we work with.”

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The government says it is giving the council £2billion over the next three years to help tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. 

As well as police officers from forces including the Met, Sussex, Greater Manchester and Merseyside, the meeting was also attended by the National Police Chief Council, College of Policing and Local Government Association. 

During the session, Hughes advised the council on how local authorities and other agencies could work better with the police to tackle the issue, and support rough sleepers at a regional level. 

“We welcome this meeting and the encouraging work already being done by police forces and councils across the country to support people off the streets, which Crisis and the National Police Chiefs’ Council brought together in a practical guide” said Matt Downie Chief Executive of Crisis. 

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“Far more progress could be made, though, by scrapping archaic and unhelpful approaches to rough sleeping like the Vagrancy Act, which only drives people out of sight and further away from support.

“Soon MPs will have the chance to scrap this appalling law when the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill returns to the House of Commons. We urge the government to finally decriminalise homelessness and help end rough sleeping for good.”

The Vagrancy Act makes it an offence to sleep rough or beg, and although prosecutions have diminished in recent years, it remains a threat for the homeless population. 

Outreach group the Museum of Homelessness said it did not want to see more police involvement.

A spokesperson said: “We are curious about why anyone would think increasing policing will tackle rough sleeping. What the community needs is homes, investment in services and compassion, not arrests, fines and being shoved from one doorway to another.”

“Enforcement simply doesn’t work. Our research, to be released soon, has uncovered disproportionate levels of policing on the street homeless community already in place. Has this ‘solved homelessness?’ The answer is clear for anyone to see as they walk down the street.” 

Last year, Home Office plans to deport rough sleepers were branded “inhumane” by more than 60 homelessness and human rights groups, including Shelter, Crisis and Anti-Slavery International. They warned the proposals risked driving rough sleepers away from essential support and into modern slavery and exploitation. 

“The homeless crisis is heart-breaking – no one should be left to face a night on the streets without a place to sleep and communities should not have to put up with the antisocial behaviour that can be associated with it,” said policing minister Kit Malthouse.

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