Homelessness, outreach and ASBOs in the mother country

Where: London and Edinburgh, United Kingdom

When: 30 November – 8 December 2013

Who: City of London Police; City of London Anti-Social Behaviour Working Group; Joseph Rowntree Foundation; Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick and Dr Sarah Johnsen, School of the Built Environment, Heriot-Watt University; St Mungo’s; Broadway Homelessness and Support; Crisis

When antipodeans think of Old  Blighty, one or more of these things will inevitably come to mind: convict ancestry; our monarch and her offspring, particularly Wills (Kate) and the baby prince; an enviably well functioning London Eye and Oyster Card; Posh and Becks; the Ashes; and/or a wonderful array of  libraries, museums and galleries that are freely accessible.  Up north is the land of William Wallace, tartan man-skirts, highland cows and world’s best practice homelessness legislation.

In addition to these features, the UK has been the site of sophisticated homelessness reduction strategies since the 1990s.  Despite years of these successful programs, however, the economic crisis, combined with tough cuts to welfare and social services and a lack of affordable housing, have seen a worrying resurgence of homelessness in England and present a risk for Scotland’s first class homelessness prevention model.

In the earlier landscape of successful homelessness reduction, particularly rough sleeping, England developed a number of collaborative ‘tough love’ approaches to homelessness and public space, involving some or all of homeless outreach agencies, police, housing services, local councils and drug and alcohol services.  Much of the work coming out of the UK, both in research and practice, takes a considered approach that recognises a role for enforcement, teamed with support and as a last resort, in initiatives aimed at addressing rough sleeping and ‘anti-social behaviour’.

Some reflections on the rationale, mechanics, benefits and risks of these approaches are below.

The Royal Courts of Justice - home to the High Court and the Court of Appeal of England and Wales

The Royal Courts of Justice – home to the High Court and the Court of Appeal of England and Wales

A gentle reminder for frustrated commuters

A gentle reminder for frustrated commuters

'No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background ...'

‘No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background …’

Observations and reflections 

  1. Assertive outreach — in England I heard police described as ‘frontline workers in a way’.  Police work closely with homeless agencies engaged in ‘assertive outreach’.  Outreach organisations may ask police to ‘disrupt’ groups of rough sleepers because this makes it easier for the outreach agencies to engage with individuals.  The underpinning idea is: ‘it’s not okay for people to sleep rough.  They’re not going to be left alone.  We live in the 21st Century and everyone should have a roof over their head’.  Phrased differently, ‘it’s not all about tea and sympathy’.  Police involvement is seen as having a role to play because rough sleepers ‘get entrenched in their lifestyle and it’s hard to get them to change unless they’re disrupted’.  Beyond ‘disruption’, the enforcement measures used in response to homelessness and public space that I came across in England include: Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs); arrests for begging, persistent begging or sleeping rough under the Vagrancy Act 1824 (the offence of being an ‘incorrigible rogue’ has recently been repealed); ‘designing out’ rough sleepers, including through use of ‘trespass panels’ that make it  uncomfortable for people to sleep in doorways; and ‘alternative giving schemes’.  I’ll talk more about each of these measures, including their impact, throughout this post and in my final report.
  2. It’s not an offence just to be in public — the police face pressure from residents, business people and politicians to ‘clean up the streets’ or move homeless people on.  They have to remind people that it’s not an offence for homeless people just to be in public and, unless there’s legislation that empowers them, they can’t just move people on.
  3. Interagency co-operation — I was lucky to be invited to attend the monthly Anti-Social Behaviour Working Group in the City of London, which has now been running for 18 months.  In attendance were a range of government and non-government services, including police, housing services, homelessness outreach agencies, local council and substance misuse services.  At these meetings there’s a high level of information sharing and collaboration.  Individuals are identified by name and updates are provided on whether or not they’re engaging with services (e.g. housing or drug and alcohol).  The collaboration between different agencies is strong and there’s an understanding that ‘if you work in partnership with other agencies, you get results … we’re all singing from the same song book’.
  4. Responding to a blitz on begging — in the early months of 2013 the City of London Police undertook a blitz on people begging in the City.  After arresting 48 people and seeing the same faces ‘again and again’, they thought, ‘this is ridiculous, surely there’s got to be a better way of dealing with this’.  Their motivation to implement a program that addressed the causes of offending behaviour led to Operation Fennel.
  5. Carrots, sticks and fennel — Operation Fennel is the City of London Police initiative to combat begging in the City of London (an area of one square mile) that’s been running since June 2013.  The process is that a person suspected of begging is given a ‘Street Awareness Initiative’ ticket (see photos below), which requires them to attend an ‘educational and welfare appointment’ at a set time and place (i.e. a ‘hub’ hosted every 4 – 5 weeks with a wide range of services, including Broadway Homelessness and Support, drug and alcohol workers, veterans’ charities and ‘people to discuss issues with in a completely private and confidential manner’).  If people attend on this day it negates the summons for that offence and no prosecution will take place (there’s no ongoing obligation to engage), but if they re-offend they will be given a summons i.e. it’s a ‘one shot only’ opportunity.  The ticket contains the warning: ‘If you do not attend the event, any offences will be logged by City of London Police and proceedings will take place in order to prosecute you for those offences’.  The tickets allow for two warnings before arrest or summons, but in practice the police decide ‘case by case’ whether more warnings should be given.  The police point out though that they do have to take action: ‘if there’s no action for non-compliance, there’s no deterrent and it won’t work’.  The police documentation explains: ‘as always our priority is to determine who is offending and how often, [to put] these people in touch with the services, charities and people best suited to combat their problems with them and get them off the streets and into some sort of safety and rehabilitation programme.  However, if these people continue to offend and not accept the help offered then actions will be taken to prosecute them and remove them from the City of London‘.  It’s a ‘good will program, we can arrest them for it the first time, but we’re not’.
  6. What are we trying to achieve? — the message I heard from a number of experts in the UK is that there’s a role for enforcement in addressing rough sleeping and ‘anti-social behaviour’ but it must be accompanied by services and ‘crucially, the interests of the person must be at the heart of it.  It’s a very different story if the reason for the action is to clean up the streets’.  The stated intentions of the City of London Police for Operation Fennel are ‘to provide help, guidance and assistance to persons suspected of begging with a view to preventing further offences’.  In contrast to countless other enforcement-based approaches to conduct in public places, which aim to clean up streets or remove visible homelessness, addressing the underlying causes of the person’s offending conduct are at the forefront of this program.   Operation Fennel’s reported outcomes in relation to the 180 tickets issued to 94 people between July – November 2013 indicate that this is the program’s intention: links made between homeless individuals and housing charities; 15 people currently engaging with drug workers through Operation Fennel; assistance with emergency housing over the winter period has been given; and good relationships between City of London Police and the begging community have been developed.  One stated outcome is more City-focussed: 3 ‘prolific beggars’ have left the City area.  Fifteen people have’t engaged and have continued to offend and are due in court in January where a post-conviction ASBO will be applied for.
  7. ASBOs — ASBOs, which were introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and strengthened by the Police Reform Act 2002, are ‘civil orders that exist to protect the public from behaviour that causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress‘.  Applications for ASBOs can be made to the Magistrates’ Court acting in its civil capacity or the order can be requested if a defendant is convicted of an offence in the criminal courts. It’s a civil order, but breach is a criminal offence carrying a sentence of up to five years jail.  I was reminded that people don’t ‘get ASBOed’ for being homeless per se.  As part of Operation Fennel, if people don’t show up to the ‘educational and welfare appointment’ multiple times, the police prosecute the begging offence and, if the person is convicted, request an anti-social behaviour order: ‘Prolific offenders who still fail to engage and continue to offend will be taken to court where an ASBO will be applied for’.  At the time of my visit, there were 15 summonses for people to attend court and, if convicted, the police will be seeking an ASBO.  The aim is that one court date will be allocated and all cases listed on that day.  The police try to tailor the ASBOs to the defendant’s particular conduct or circumstance and understand that the judge will strike them out if the terms are overly broad or if the requisite element of ‘harassment, alarm or distress’ cannot be made out. 
  8. Legal representation as a missing piece of the puzzle — despite the best efforts of the police to make sure applying for an ASBO is a last resort, my thoughts are that it’s still essential that the respondents have access to legal advice and representation in these proceedings.  As it currently stands, this representation isn’t available.  Some of the terms of the ASBOs are extremely broad, for example, that the person must not enter the City of London for three years, and the consequences of non-compliance are significant (i.e. prison).  While there is often some (understandable) antipathy to lawyers, their/our role is an important component of any enforcement-based program for dealing with problematic behaviour in public space.  Without legal advice and representation, it’s incredibly difficult for people to engage with the complex legal system and to understand their rights, options and obligations.  Subject to merit (and the client’s instructions), the lawyer may try to have the application for the ASBO dismissed, but alternatively, they may request that its scope or timeframe is narrowed so that the respondent isn’t ‘set up to fail’.  The legal representative may also be able to communicate to the police and the court any concerns about the operation of the ASBO, for example, that it excludes the respondent from an area that they need to enter to access heath, familial or social supports that are vital to their recovery.  Legal representatives also have an important role to play in assisting the respondent to understand what they need to do to comply with the order and what the consequences of breaching it will be.  For these reasons, even the best intentioned processes are likely to be flawed if the respondent doesn’t have access to a legal representative who can assist them to engage with the legal path they’re being taken down.
  9. Trust and policing — without doubt, much of the work being done by the City of London Police is well thought out and genuinely aimed at linking people with services to help them address the underlying causes of their ‘anti-social behaviour’.  That said, the question remains of whether it needs to be the police playing this outreach role.  In light of the sometimes fraught relationship between police and people experiencing homelessness (for various reasons, including past interactions), the resource pressures on police and the genuine support-based aim of the program, there is room for the suggestion that resources should be directed to civilian outreach workers rather than police.  Using police for this role, ‘makes it conflictual straight away’.  This fragile relationship initially impacted on Operation Fennel and people didn’t show up to the service hubs because they thought the police were ‘trying to get them in one place and nab them’.  They thought it was a trick.  Gradually, through word of mouth, trust was built and more people started to show up: ‘it’s picking up steam now’.  While not insurmountable, there are trust issues that need to be overcome between police and people experiencing homelessness that need to be factored into programs dealing with homelessness and public space.
  10. Does enforcement motivate change or further marginalise people? — this is obviously a complex question and one that I’ll explore in more depth in my final report.  In some cases, the answer requires a better understanding of addiction and substance use and why it is that some people reach a ‘turning point’ when they do.  One person interviewed as part of research on the impact of enforcement on street users in England said that the ASBO may potentially have saved his life because his incarceration after breaching it allowed him to get clean.  Another explained that after receiving an ASBO for begging, he resorted to sex work out of cars or offices.  For now, it’s a matter of flagging the risk that enforcement-based approaches, even when thoughtfully implemented, could further marginalise people personally (though pushing them to more damaging activities), practically (through geographical exclusion, jail  and potential criminal records) and psychologically (through kicking them when they’re down) in a way that impedes rather than supports their exit from homelessness and street use.  A representative from a homelessness agency said that they would prefer the police to engage with their workers rather than apply for an ASBO: ‘often [ASBOs] prevent people doing things that are useful to their recovery … sometimes, not always, they are blunt and unhelpful instruments’.  I also heard that once people are the subject of an ASBO, they ‘are constantly in and out of prison and as soon as services start to do something, he’s whisked off to prison’.
  11. Moving on — enforcement-based approaches in London are localised and primarily implemented borough to borough.  By way of example, evaluation shows that Operation Fennel has been very successful at reducing the number of people begging on the beat of the City of London.  While the figures show that a number of people have stopped begging and are engaged with services, for others it’s not clear whether they’ve stopped begging or moved to an area with fewer police resources.  We need to be mindful of the risk that this type of enforcement will simply push homeless people to move themselves on and in doing so to become more isolated, less safe and more difficult for services engage with.
  12. Killing with kindness — a campaign that immediately caught my interest in the UK was the ‘Killing with Kindness’ campaign that’s run by Thames Reach and supported by other agencies.  The campaign poster delivers the message: ‘Can you spare 20p for a cup of tea?  How about £10 for a bag of heroin?  Or £12 for a rock of crack?  The money you give to those who beg may help keep them on the streets. It may even help to buy the drugs that kill them. Put your spare change where it counts instead. Thames Reach Bondway – Ending street homelessness.’  The campaign is based on ‘[o]verwhelming evidence [which] shows that people who beg on the streets of London do so in order to buy hard drugs, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, and super-strength alcoholic beers and ciders’.  The evidence cited includes evidence from outreach teams who say ‘80 per cent of people begging do so to support a drug habit’ and drug testing of people arrested for begging done by the Metropolitan Police, which ‘indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs’.  The campaign is also based on the suggestion that ‘only 40 per cent of people arrested for begging in a Metropolitan Police operation claimed to be homeless. Most people begging have accommodation of sorts, either a hostel place or a flat or bed-sit’.  Killing with Kindness is a community education initiative; stalls are set up at train stations and homeless sector workers explain to commuters why they shouldn’t given money to people who are begging.  In my report I’ll consider in more detail the potential impact of these campaigns on public perceptions of people who are homeless, begging and/or dealing with substance dependence.  My initial concern is that these strongly delivered messages reinforce stereotypes about poverty and homelessness (even if only for a not insignificant 40% of those begging) that we’ve all fought hard to dispel.  In its simplest form it says people whose hardship is extremely visible all have a drug problem and in this way it risks leading to broader, unhelpful changes in public attitudes to poverty (or indeed entrenching attitudes that still exist).  There’s also the risk that engagement with support isn’t the only alternative to begging and if a person is indeed dealing with acute drug dependence other measures that are less safe for the community and the individual may be resorted to.  These are enormously complex issues that will attract deeper thought in my final report and are presented here only by way of thinking aloud in a cyber sense.
  13. Begging is a last resort — one of the arguments that people often raise in relation to begging in Australia is that people are ‘professional beggars’  and that they’re raking in more money than everyday low income people trying to get by.  This wasn’t an argument I heard in the UK and when I raised it people said that this wasn’t a view that had much traction, people’s hardship was pretty clear:  ‘certainly from the UK’s perspective, that’s total nonsense’.  There’s a ‘humiliation threshold’ that you have to hit before begging becomes an option.  In relation to people begging to support addiction, experts explained the ‘hierarchy’ of activity that people turn to to support their drug problems: ‘if you could cut it as a shop lifter or a drug dealer, you would.  Begging is more humiliating, it’s longer hours and harder work.  Why would you do it if you had any other options?’  I also heard, ‘people don’t make much money out of it, they’re not looking to.  They’re too desperate.  They’re people dealing with really serious illnesses’.
  14. Addressing chronic homelessness through personalised budgets — a great initiative I heard about the personalised budget program that’s been run by City of London and Broadway since May 2009. The program is described as ‘new way of working to get the most entrenched long-term rough sleepers off the streets by giving back choice and control to the individual’.  I heard: ‘the key is that they have one dedicated worker who gets to know them, who is very flexible and adaptable and who understands that different people want different things.  There are no pressures to make decisions’.  The personalised budget allocates up to £3,000 to the individual and supports them to make decisions about what they need to exit homelessness: ‘it gives them a feeling of control over their life’.  An action plan is developed, but there is no set time limit. The kinds of things people budget for are mobile phones, clothing to improve their self esteem, acquiring their birth certificate, passport or ID and accommodation costs.  Once people are in accommodation, small amounts are spent on things that will help them to sustain their tenancy and reintegrate into the community, including courses, furniture, bikes, fishing rods or lap tops.  An evaluation in 2010 found: ‘Fifteen people who had been sleeping rough for between four and 45 years were offered a personalised budget. By the time of the evaluation, the majority were in accommodation (seven) or making plans to move into accommodation (two)‘.  An updated evaluation report is due shortly — approximately 80 chronic rough sleepers have now been referred to the program.
  15. Enforcement-based approaches are ‘high risk’ options — some of the most balanced and insightful research on enforcement that I’ve seen in my travels is the work of Professor Fitzpatrick and Dr Johnsen, including their report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Impact of Enforcement on Street Users in England.  The study involved case studies of five different local areas that had introduced ‘enforcement interventions’ in response to ‘problematic street culture’, particularly begging and street drinking.  The research considered the motivations for these interventions and, importantly, 37 in-depth interviews were conducted with current or former ‘street users’ to assess the impact of enforcement on their welfare.  An additional 29 current or former street users participated in focus groups; and 82 support providers and enforcement agents and 27 local residents and business proprietors also participated in the research.   It’s impossible to do justice to the complex research here, but I’ll leave you with the following summary of some key aspects of the balanced findings: ‘Given the unpredictability of outcomes for specific street users, and the potential for very negative impacts for some (for example, diversion into more dangerous activities/spaces as well as the possibility of lengthy prison sentences), enforcement is undoubtedly a high risk strategy with regards to the well-being of street users … the specific actions and personal circumstances of street users must be taken into account in making a considered judgement on whether enforcement action is both necessary and likely to be effective in each particular case. ‘Blanket’ enforcement policies are inappropriate. Harder enforcement measures (for example, ASBOs) should only be used as a last resort, after appropriate ‘warning stages’, and should never be used with extremely vulnerable street users, particularly those with serious mental health problems. For enforcement to have a reasonable prospect of prompting a positive response from any street users, it must always be carefully integrated with individually tailored and (immediately) accessible supportive interventions; involve effective interagency working; and be articulated in such a way as to emphasise the positive options open to a street user, particularly the availability of appropriate accommodation and support’

That’s it for the first leg of my European stint.  Next stops are Geneva and Brussels.  Thanks again for your interest dedicated readers.  As always, feel free to contact me with queries, comments or feedback.  Happy 2014 — may it be a year where we all continue to work toward laws and practices that impact less harshly and more effectively on people experiencing homelessness in our communities (whilst of course continuing our work to prevent and reduce homelessness).

Killing with Kindness campaign poster

Killing with Kindness campaign poster

Street Awareness Initiative ticket page 1

Street Awareness Initiative ticket page 1

Street Awareness Initiative ticket page 2
Street Awareness Initiative ticket page 2



  1. Amanda Lamont · · Reply

    Fantastic read Lucy. Keep the news coming. Still so much to learn.

  2. Prue Elletson · · Reply

    Thanks for your updates Lucy. I’d love to catch up when your back to discuss some of these ideas.

  3. Once again, a very insightful and educative post. You learned so much about London in such a short time – knowledge which has evaded me for the past 11 months! Thank you.

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