The report is the first to uncover the impact of PSPOs on people experiencing street homelessness and has made a series of recommendations to policymakers, police forces and local authorities.
Findings show that across England and Wales, there are inconsistencies with how PSPOs and anti-social behaviour laws are being used to police people experiencing street homelessness, with evidence that some of the laws are being stretched beyond their original intentions.
The researchers' recommendations have called for updated guidance on how to use PSPO powers, improving training for frontlines officers and changing the culture and mindset of policing bodies to prioritise support and signposting over enforcement.
Dr Vicky Heap, co-author of the report from Sheffield Hallam University, said: “The misuse of Public Spaces Protection Orders and other anti-social behaviour powers are disproportionately criminalising people experiencing street sleeping homelessness.
“Some of the areas we looked at were handing out the most fixed penalty notices for breach of PSPOs, which are already known to make life more difficult for people experiencing street homelessness who cannot pay the fine and end up in court.
“Our research shows how important it is to use these laws correctly and ethically, prioritising support before enforcement and encouraging policing bodies to challenge poor practice.”
The research looked at areas of England and Wales that had a PSPO in place that specifically targeted behaviour associated with street homelessness and had the highest number of fixed penalty notices issued for breach of PSPO.
As part of the research, the team spoke to people experiencing street homelessness. Some of the participants felt that they were being policed for public perception rather than for doing anything wrong:
“I'm not causing an issue; I'm clearing up after myself when I go. I'm just sitting in a corner going to sleep, but people just don't like you there because as far as they're concerned, you're bringing the area down. It makes you feel like scum, you know. I did feel like scum. It makes you feel worthless.”
One example given in the report is of a PSPO which prohibited drinking in the street. Whilst two street sleeping homeless men were moved on for having a drink in the street, a large group of students drinking wine from the bottle were left alone.
Participants also gave examples of police not knowing how to signpost to support and not having a willingness to tackle the root of the problem:
“The police, they're not willing to take on board what is happening on the streets. Rather than face the problem and deal with it and help find a solution they just think chuck them in the cells, no light, food is just a Pot Noodle if anything, it's just no way to help you.”
In the report, people experiencing street homelessness reported varied policing interactions from supportive to verbal and physical abuse, emotionally impacting on the participants and resulting in antagonistic relationships.
Matt Downie, Chief Executive of Crisis, said: “People experiencing street homelessness often face difficult interactions with police, and it’s really positive that policing is improving in many areas to promote more empathetic and constructive approaches – this is exactly what we need.
“The reality is that homelessness is a public health crisis which stems from of a range of factors, including a lack of affordable homes, trauma and mental health issues. Being homeless shouldn’t automatically throw people into the criminal justice system.
“We’re proud to have campaigned for the outdated Vagrancy Act to be scrapped, and we’ll carry on doing all we can to show people that homelessness is a problem that deserves support, not punishment.
“This new guidance promotes fair and proportionate enforcement against anti-social behaviour, and we hope that police forces will make use of it wherever possible.”
A copy of the report is available here.