Punishing poverty in public spaces: living within a Public Spaces Protection Order

Dr Vicky Heap, Dr Alex Black and Dr Chris Devany

Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) prompted concern and criticism from human rights organisations and criminologists when they were introduced by the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act (2014). In short, a PSPO can place behavioural restrictions upon a designated area of public space. If those restrictions are breached, an individual can be issued with a £100 fixed penalty notice or a fine of up to £1000 on conviction. According to the Home Office, the rationale for PSPOs is to prevent behaviour that has, or is likely to have, a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality. The size of PSPO areas can vary substantially, some merely cover streets adjacent to major infrastructure or civic buildings, whereas others can span an entire city ward or local authority district. However, despite statutory Home Office guidance outlining how PSPOs should not target people based on the fact they are homeless or rough sleeping, evidence has shown that numerous local authorities have created PSPOs with prohibitions related to behaviours associated with street homelessness, including begging and street drinking. This is problematic because it suggests the prioritisation of the quality of life of ‘the community’ above the basic human needs of some of the most vulnerable people in society. Not to mention the inability for people experiencing street homelessness to pay a fine and the consequential acceleration of the criminalisation process.

At Sheffield Hallam University we have recently published new research that has shone a light on how PSPOs impact upon people experiencing street homelessness. In ten case study areas across England and Wales, we spoke to 52 people experiencing street homelessness, listening to their accounts of living within a PSPO area and how they were policed. The range of PSPO prohibitions in the case study areas we studied included: begging/aggressive begging, street drinking, drug/psychoactive substance use, urination/defecation, sleeping in public places, blocking doorways, erecting tents/temporary structures, loitering, leaving belongings unattended on the street, and groups congregating. It was clear across the ten areas that there has been a lowering of the threshold of what is defined as anti-social, with a wider range of behaviours subject to enforcement.

Our participants explained how they were policed with the PSPO areas. We found that a number of powers from the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act (2014) were layered and used within the PSPOs, such as Dispersal Orders and Community Protection Notices alongside the Vagrancy Act (1824). In combination this created a layered and volatile space for people experiencing street homelessness, who felt constantly policed and surveilled by multiple mechanisms. This was fuelled by the high volume of interactions they had with the policing bodies (police, local authority enforcement offices, private security firms), where they were repeatedly told to ‘move on’. The dispersal and displacement of people experiencing street homelessness did not prevent or deter our participants from inhabiting those spaces. Routinely they would return to the area, a creating continual cycle of policing and dispersal. There was consensus across our participants that this approach to the policing of anti-social behaviour associated with people experiencing street homelessness did not solve the perceived problem with ASB, nor the drivers of street homelessness. It was also apparent that there were two distinct approaches to the policing of the PSPOs: either punitive or performative. In the punitive areas, there was a proactive focus by the policing bodies to seek out people experiencing street homelessness for enforcement measures. In contrast, performative areas were characterised by reactive and informal approaches to enforcement. Across all areas there were substantial variations in the types of interactions that were had between people experiencing street homelessness and the policing bodies, which ranged from supportive and caring to verbal abuse and physical assaults. Where support and signposting were not offered, there was a missed opportunity for meaningful engagement.

The policing practices detailed by our participants resulted in them experiencing a range of negative impacts. Participants from every case study area discussed a range of emotional impacts. Many expressed a feeling of being on edge and unable to relax due to the anticipation of being asked to move on. Some were resigned to the policing experience, but acknowledged that the behaviours being policing, such as rough sleeping or alcohol consumption, would not be stopped by policing alone. Many of our participants also felt a sense of injustice because that the behaviours that they exhibited, particularly in relation to alcohol use, were not similarly policed when members of the wider community were involved. Anger towards their differential treatment was often met with resistance, where our participants engaged with further anti-social behaviour simply to annoy the policing bodies, highlighting the unproductive nature of the relationship between both parties.

In short, our evidence suggests the policing of anti-social behaviour associated with people experiencing street homelessness through the use of PSPOs and other powers from the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act (2014) appears to be counterproductive and harmful. Given that PSPOs look set to stay, we have used our data to create a policy guidance document alongside Crisis, ASB Help and Janine Green ASB, which outlines how the tools and powers should be used more compassionately. The purpose of producing this document was to ensure the powers are not used disproportionately against people experiencing street homelessness and to encourage cross-partner agreement on the most productive and least harmful approaches. Our recommendations are rooted in the concept of legal literacy, where we promote doing things right and doing the right things over ‘quick wins’ that fail to solve the problem. Our report and guidance documents can be found here.

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