25 June 2014

Council and police action on tent sleepers

The recent spate of people sleeping in tents on Brighton seafront has been actively tackled by the council and police in various ways.  As housing committee chair Councillor BILL RANDALL writes, it's about balancing the needs of vulnerable homeless people with those of residents, traders and communities...

The background to all this is that the local authority is constantly working to reduce rough sleeping - and prevented around 2000 people from becoming homeless last year alone.  Nationally, rough sleeping increased by around 40 per cent between autumn 2010 and 2013.

Numbers of people sleeping in tents recently on the seafront were small - the council’s rough sleepers team found about a dozen individuals.

Councils aren’t required or financed to house people with no local connection.  Coastal towns traditionally attract large numbers of rough sleepers from elsewhere so it’s clearly not possible for a local council to meet a national demand.

Of the dozen people in the seafront camps, only one was found to have any local connection.  The rough sleepers team are working with others to establish their connection to areas outside Brighton & Hove to plan relocation.

However, even with people from elsewhere, the council and police still act to move people on or urge them to seek help from voluntary organisations or the health service - or to return to a place where they are entitled to council help.

The council’s seafront team can and do remove unoccupied tents.  Erecting tents without permission is against local bylaws.  

National studies suggest about half of rough sleepers have mental health issues and about half have a serious alcohol problem.  About 40 per cent of rough sleepers under 26 have a drug problem.

So the council has a responsibility to ensure such people are treated humanely and offered appropriate care and advice.  At the same time, it also recognises that rough sleepers can alarm or upset people, cause anti-social behaviour and raise concerns among traders that tourists might be discouraged.

For this reason the council tries to operate a ‘firm but fair’ policy, balancing its responsibilities, both to rough sleepers and the city at large.

A new approach during this episode has been the council’s piloting of an emergency assessment centre.

On two consecutive nights, council outreach staff and the police proactively targeted the most entrenched rough sleepers.  Reminding them of potential police powers on issues such as drunkenness, begging or drugs, they were encouraged to attend the centre.  This would assess them for help with things like housing, health or the law.  As a result, a number of the tent sleepers attended the centre.

The camp which sparked recent news coverage, on the upper level of the Madeira Colonnade – or Max Miller Walk – has now dispersed.  It is highly possible more tents will appear occasionally during the summer.  The council is aware people are still sleeping rough on the seafront – and are still working on it.

The authority stresses that it will always act on such encampments, in a way that meets its duties to vulnerable people as well as protecting the interests of the city, its businesses, residents and visitors.

Figures quoted above come from this Parliamentary paper