Tunbridge Wells Council considers on-the-spot fines for begging in the street

TUNBRIDGE WELLS’ Community Safety Unit is set to begin a consultation process about introducing more Public Spaces Protection Orders [PSPOs] next month – which include fines for begging on the street.

The unit – a partnership between Kent Police, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council [TMBC] and county hall among others – is focused on tackling anti-social behaviour and other ‘quality of life’ issues in the town as well as crime.

If the council’s Cabinet approves the scheme at its meeting tomorrow [October 26], the public will be asked for their views about Fixed Penalty Notices being issued for PSPO issues such as dog-fouling, public drinking and – most controversially – begging.

PSPOs, which were introduced under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, have been in place in the neighbouring borough of Tonbridge & Malling since April – though they do not include and stipulation to target beggars.

The Tunbridge Wells authority has been accused of picking on the homeless if they decide to implement this policy, and responded with the phrase: “Not all street beggars are homeless and not all homeless people beg.”

The council issued a statement saying: “The PSPO is not a way to target homeless people and if it is introduced, staff will be fully trained and will have discretion about how they enforce this condition of the PSPO.

“The idea behind this being to encourage genuinely homeless people to engage with agencies who can provide help and assistance.”

The enforcement stipulates that beggars would be banned from approaching members of the public verbally or physically and would be prevented from sitting or loitering in public spaces with any container used to collect money.

Maidstone Town Council introduced the PSPO to tackle begging last month, citing concerns about ‘professional begging’ on its streets. Instead the body is promoting a ‘killing with kindness’ campaign calling on the public to donate money to local charities who support the homeless.

Mark Hedges of Maidstone Police said: “Many visitors are unaware of the professional begging operating in their local areas. It is very difficult for people to differentiate between a person in genuine need and a professional beggar.

“By introducing these measures we can control anti-social behaviour and keep the areas as safe as possible for everyone.” TMBC says that with changes under way for PSPOs, which are intended to protect public spaces from persistent anti-social behaviour, now is the right time to consider adding extra controls.

“Alcohol Control Zones, which are already designated in some places in the borough, are soon to automatically change to PSPOs, and therefore it is now a good time to consider whether further measures are required.”

Responsibility for the enforcement of PSPOs would be undertaken by police in cases involving alcohol and drugs, while the council’s street scene enforcement officers would be involved in dog issues and begging.

Cabinet member Councillor Lynne Weatherly said: “These are all issues where in the past people have told us they would like to see action.

“It is very early days and if approved by Cabinet the next step would be to consult more widely before deciding what, if any, prohibitions should be introduced.”

What the expert says:

JOHN HANDLEY, Chief Executive of The Bridge Trust, a homeless charity in Tonbridge, says:

“What seems to have been forgotten is that every single person sleeping rough or begging is different.

“These arguments [against giving money to beggars] hold true for a few but not for most, and to use a Public Space Protection Order to try and sweep the issue away seems overly draconian, and asserting that you will fine beggars £80 – or £1,000 if they don’t pay up – is just daft.

“When asked if beggars intimidate residents he adds: “A few maybe, but it depends what ‘harassment’ means to you. I don’t consider someone asking me for change is harassment.

As for getting off the streets through relevant agencies, Mr Handley agrees entirely with the principle but says the reality is quite different.

“The extent of their capabilities may be to simply survive day hour by hour. Assuming that they all have the capacity to make appointments with job advisors or use computers to do job searches is simply a fantasy.”

“In my view, just because you offer only A and B and neither of those can work for these people, to just legislate against them – effectively writing them off – is uncaring, uncompassionate and in many respects dehumanising.”

Begging in the shop doorway: A case study

Carl is facing his first winter on the streets. He has been homeless for six months, and sits outside a well-frequented supermarket in the centre of Tunbridge Wells. He has a receptacle in which passers-by can leave money.

What does he think about the fact that people are discouraged from giving money to beggars so they seek help through other means. “I’ve been through all those channels,” he says. “Tunbridge Wells Gateway are the worst, they’re really useless.

“Then there’s [homeless charity] Porchlight. All they do is come along at six o’clock in the morning, wake me up and say: ‘Alright, mate? How’s it going?’ That’s all they do. I wish they wouldn’t, I’d rather get some sleep.”

Carl became homeless after his wife ‘cheated’ on him and he turned to drink. She became involved in drugs and he saw his son taken into care. He has been through the courts but is not allowed to have access to his child. The boy was taken into a foster home and the family will not let him visit.

People often buy him items from the shop next to his pitch rather than give him money, in case he spends it on drink or drugs – as the advisors tell you. But he says he would rather have the cash, to spend it on what he wants – and he puts away a few pounds a week if he can.

“The people round here are alright mostly,” he says. “There’s a few who have a go at me, call me a druggie, all that. A lot of people are kind and buy me food from the shop here. But I don’t want it, to be honest, you know? I want to eat my type of food.

“I go to the kebab shop late at night and get myself some salad and a pitta bread. Maybe a couple of pieces of chicken. The stuff people give me, it piles up next to me. I don’t eat it, and I end up giving it away to other homeless people.”

He does acknowledge that there are people who beg who are not homeless – “there’s a couple of them in Tunbridge Wells and they do really p*** me off”. But poignantly he adds: “They may have a home to go to. But most of those people are on benefits. What does 58 quid a week get you? That’s not even a day’s wage. So I can’t blame them.”

And as for enforcement workers dishing out on-the-spot fines as Fixed Penalty Notices, he says: “That’s no good, is it? How are they going to get the money? I mean, I’ve got a bank card – but there’s not enough money in the account to pay them £80.”

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