A council has been called “cruel and callous” for proposing £1,000 fines to homeless people sleeping in tents in the city centre.
Stoke-on-Trent council in Staffordshire is consulting on a public space protection order (PSPO) that will make it an offence for a person to “assemble, erect, occupy or use” a tent unless part of a council-sanctioned activity such as a music festival.
Anyone who fails to pay their £100 on-the-spot penalty notice can be prosecuted and fined up to £1,000 in court.
The PSPO will cover the city centre, Hanley Park, Festival Park and Octagon Retail Park.
Ruth Smeeth, the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North and Kidsgrove, said: “This is a cruel and callous policy to inflict on our most vulnerable in the lead-up to Christmas. We do have a growing problem with homelessness here in Stoke-on-Trent, but punishing people for their misfortune is no way to fix it.
Ruth Smeeth, MP for Stoke-on-Trent North: ‘This is a cruel and callous policy.’ Photograph: John Domokos for the Guardian
“It’s right and proper that the police take action to stop anti-social behaviour on our streets, but punishing the homeless simply for being homeless is appalling.
“In recent years we’ve seen local funding for drug and alcohol treatment slashed and support to tackle homelessness cut to the bone. Locking these people up or saddling them with debt they can’t pay will only make the problem worse.”
The PSPO is supported by many businesses in Stoke. Jonathan Bellamy, the chair of the City Centre Partnership Chairman, told the Stoke Sentinel: “In recent weeks I have personally witnessed in the city centre: two bottles of vodka smashed on the pavements; a drunken woman clearly out of her mind and damaging the front door of a building in Cheapside while children walked by; and a man urinating outside an empty shop in the Cultural Quarter at 2 in the afternoon.
“Millions of pounds has been invested in the city centre in recent years by the council and private businesses and thousands of livelihoods depend on this vital piece of our local economy. That should not be undermined by the ill-disciplined, destructive behaviour of a few people.”
The GMB union urged members of the public in Stoke to write to the council to oppose the measure, which is designed to stamp out antisocial behaviour. The council is consulting on the proposal until 15 December and says it is a response to requests from local business people, shoppers and visitors.
The PCSO would also criminalise sleeping in public toilets as well as “begging in a manner that is reasonably perceived to be intimidating or a nuisance.”.
Stuart Richards, senior organiser at GMB, said: “Cuts to benefits, council funding and a lack of affordable housing have led to a massive increase in the number of people affected by homelessness across the West Midlands.
“We’re not going to solve the issues or causes around this by criminalising or punishing those who end up sleeping on our streets. GMB is asking the people of Stoke to take part in the council’s consultation to help to force a change in this proposal.”
Gareth Snell, the MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, said: “Stoke-on-Trent’s approach to the homeless is seriously flawed. Fining those who have nowhere to go is unacceptable. But to compound the problem, they now plan to cut support for homelessness services in Stoke-on-Trent by £1m as a result of budget cuts.
“They are failing the very people we should be helping most.”
More than 3,000 people have signed a petition calling on the council to abandon the proposal.
Last year, freedom of information requests by the Vice website discovered that at least 36 local councils in England and Wales “have introduced or are working on PSPOs which criminalise activities linked to homelessness”.
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