We are asked our council candidate for Northbrook ward, Darren Pearce to comment on the propsed Public Space Protection Order (PSPO).
Between 1991 and 2002 I worked in London with the homeless. I first worked in a temporary cold weather shelter in the Blackfriars area of the City of London which was funded under the Government's “Rough Sleepers Initiative”, which was a 3-4 year programme. The cold weather shelter put a roof over the heads of some of the city’s rough sleepers, some of whom had mental health, substance and alcohol dependency issues. Some were there because they lost everything in the recession. Some were between the ages of 18 and 25 and had either been thrown out of their family home or to escape physical or sexual abuse.
The cold weather shelter closed when its funding was stopped. After the shelter’s closure I continued to work with the homeless in the City and East End of London through The Salvation Army's “City and East London Outreach Team”. The team worked with rough sleepers, often right where they had laid their cardboard to sleep that night.
Our aim was engagement, to talk and advise. To support, encourage and work with them to transition from living on the streets into living in a hostel for the homeless or working with social services to move them straight into independent housing. We also assisted them to complete unemployment and housing benefit claims and also to make calls to energy providers to get basic utilities turned on. We then supported them over the next few months with any problems or issues they had with independent living. When funding for this project ended I continued to work with the homeless, this time in a homeless hostel in Whitechapel.
For those 11 years, I worked with some of the most disadvantaged in society, a society which had largely turned its back on them. You might say that some of these people refuse to engage when help is offered but in my experience getting someone to accept help means that firstly, they have to admit they have a problem. For some, the revelation of the plight they are in becomes near unbearable. They start to feel even more helpless and in some cases suicidal.
I recall two instances from my time in London that really demonstrate my point.
The first was a guy that was abusing both Glue and Butane Gas. He would inhale them from a brown paper bag leaving a thick white glue ring around his mouth. I found him one night sleeping inside a refuse bin. After chatting with him I gave him coffee and some blankets. As I walked away I thought that one day he could become unconscious inside that bin, the bin would be collected up, and he would have crushed and disposed of with the rest of the City’s garbage, a very saddening thought.
The second was a gentleman in his 60s or 70s who slept rough in Paternoster Square, near to St Paul’s Cathedral. We worked with him for months. Every time he was offered a hostel bed, he refused to accept it. With the assistance of Social Services, we managed to finally get him to accept help and a bed, as his health was clearly deteriorating. He stayed in a hostel in Whitechapel for only a few weeks before his health issues took their toll and he passed away. Thank heavens we managed to get him inside in time and that he didn’t end his days in some undignified way on the streets.
There is no one size fits all solution to this issue. Creating a Worthing specific by-law criminalising some of the issues that our town’s homeless community have is not the answer either.
For one it’s unworkable. People living rough, by the very nature of their situation, won’t be able to pay the fine. The problem is they are not getting the support they need to shake off their addictions. Criminalising them will not change the underlying problems they have. Therefore, they will potentially continue to spend money on alcohol and drugs, continue to carry out their ‘anti-social’ behaviour, continue to get fined and not end the whole miserable cycle they’re in. The practical and financial cost to the Police and the financial cost to the court system would also be unacceptably high, as the situation in Brighton and Hove has shown (As reported in the Argus on the 7th February and the 3rd March.)
Worthing already has Alcohol Free Zones, which are clearly sign posted. There is always the option to extend these.
Currently the prison system is at breaking point with less than half the country’s prisons running at less than 100% occupancy. There really isn’t the room to start imprisoning the homeless for failure to pay fines that, quite honestly, they are unable to pay in the first place. It would be far better and cheaper to provide them with practical support for their addictions as well as a roof over their head, a comfortable bed and a hot meal rather than this ridiculous proposal.
This measure implies that the patience and empathy of the council and its related agencies towards the homeless have been exhausted. The impression this gives to anyone from outside Worthing is of a council which considers it more practical to either move homeless people on without providing them with support or to criminalise them by issuing a fine with the threat of a custodial sentence for any non-payment. It does not portray a council that will work towards providing them a safe place to stay along with the support that some may need to kick their alcohol and substance dependency issues.
The council has spoken about anti-social behaviour, street drinkers, substance abusers and those that beg in the town. What's needed here is empathy. Homelessness and its related issues don’t discriminate. It is something that can happen to any of us, regardless of age, race, health, wealth, social standing or sexual orientation.
In summary, I believe that the proposal will not work for the following reasons:
- It’s unenforceable. Those who will be affected will not be able to pay any fines that are levied on them, and will continue in the cycle that they currently find themselves in.
- It will be a waste of taxpayers’ money. The cost of policing, the cost of the court proceedings and the cost to the prison system will be higher than the cost of actually helping those affected by homelessness (e.g. people with mental health issues, learning disabilities and people who use alcohol and drugs.) into accommodation.
- The homelessness crisis is getting worse. As homelessness rises at an alarming rate under this Government, the costs will continue to increase.
Therefore, I would strongly recommend that the Council abandon this proposal and not waste thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money on a proposal which would be unworkable and not resolve the difficulties people are experiencing managing substance use and living on the street.
Labour Party Candidate for Northbrook Ward
Do you agree with Darren and think the proposed PSPO is unjust and unworkable? If so, please give your views to the council through the public consultancy here by the 21st of March.