Essex Changes Rough Sleeping Laws

Streets Kitchen - Chelmsford protest

Homelessness Is Not A Crime – Source: Streetskitchen.co.uk

Council Amends New Law After Public Backlash

Chelmsford Council has amended a law banning rough sleepers from public places following public protests.

Chelmsford City Council has been forced to scrap a controversial new law that would criminalise rough sleepers, following overwhelming public protest.

Last November, the council revealed its plans to introduce a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) for Chelmsford City Centre, which was intended to restrict certain activities viewed as having a detrimental impact on residents.

Included in this draft legislation were restrictions on rough sleeping and begging, with potential fines of up to £100 for violating the law.

‘Homelessness is Not a Crime’

These restrictions were roundly criticised by homeless organisations in the area, who claimed that they would victimise and criminalise people who are homeless and rough sleeping, rather than providing them with the support that they need to get off the streets. While some homeless people have mental health issues, many people also find themselves homeless following an unexpected unemployment. Some people may have a case for unfair dismissal, which if successful, can help to keep them in their homes and off the street.

This led to the creation of the ‘Homelessness Is Not A Crime’ campaign, which was launched by protest group Chelmsford Momentum and canvassed people on a weekly basis, eventually winning more than 4,000 signatures in favour of scrapping the restrictions.

In February, over 150 activists marched from Shire Hall to the Civic Centre, where they interrupted the council meeting in order to handover the petition. You can read a full report and see more photos on Streets Kitchen.

As a result of these protests, and following discussions with the homeless organisations involved,  the Council agreed to drop the clause on rough sleeping and to amend the section on begging to say ‘aggressive begging’, with an accompanying definition.

What are PSPOs?

PSPOs (or Public Space Protection Orders) were introduced a couple of years ago under the Anti-social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014. They enable the criminalisation of behaviour and activity that is not usually considered as criminal, such as rough sleeping or drinking alcohol in public, but unlike the better-known anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), PSPOs are geographically designed rather than directed at individuals. This means that certain activities can be made prosecutable with a defined area.

These powers are not without controversy. PSPOs are often seen as an assault on civil liberties and anti-regulation group the Manifesto Club recently criticised them for enabling councils to create “a patchwork of criminal law” and to “ban pretty much anything”. There is also concern amongst campaigners that the activities covered in many PSPOs unfairly stigmatise the most vulnerable, which can often make it even more difficult for these people to access help and support.

Certainly, Chelmsford is the not the first council to use the powers to restrict behaviours associated with homelessness. In 2015, Hackney Council introduced a PSPO which banned begging and rough sleeping, although, as in Chelmsford, it was eventually dropped after a petition opposing the ban was signed by more than 80,000 people. Similarly, Newport City Council’s attempt to criminalise rough sleeping in the city centre was overturned following a coordinated campaign by local homelessness charities, who also criticised the use of language in the original consultation.

Despite the success of these and other campaigns, many councils are still turning to PSPOs to ban behaviour linked to homelessness in public places. And, as our homeless population continues to grow, we can expect to see many more of these cases hitting the headlines in the near future.

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