Latest figures reveal Preston as the begging capital of Lancashire

Over 200 vagrancy arrests in four years made mostly in Preston
Over 200 vagrancy arrests in four years made mostly in Preston
Have your say

They may be professional beggars or people so down on their luck that they have nowhere else to go.

Whatever the case, the number of beggars in Preston i the highest in the county, it has been revealed.

Stephan Williamson

Stephan Williamson

Lancashire Constabulary has made 215 arrests under the 1824 Vagrancy Act in the past four years, with the biggest number of those made in Preston.

The city saw 41 arrests for vagrancy since 2012, mainly for begging in a public place and being found in or upon enclosed premises.

In comparison, there were six arrests in Leyland, five in Chorley, and 13 in the Lancaster and Morecambe areas.

Jeff Marsh, chief executive of The Foxton Centre in Preston, which works with the city’s most vulnerable, said: “The Vagarancy Act had almost stopped being used until recently, but its use has picked up again, usually to deal with begging rather than rough sleeping.

I’d get nicked for sleeping in doorways and for begging, even if someone came up to me and gave me something when I hadn’t asked for it.

Karen Wallis

“I can’t think that arresting someone for rough sleeping would be useful in any way and I noted with some dismay the recent proposal in Newport to use anti-social behaviour legislation to criminalise rough sleepers and use fines of up to £1,000 and I was pleased when they stepped back from this.

“On a purely practical level it would be a complete waste of police and court time without addressing the reasons why someone was on the street and I can’t see many of the homeless people having the money to pay a fine.”

Karen Wallis, 45, spent years on the streets after an abusive relationship saw her spiral into drug use and alcoholism, and said she was arrested “thousands of times” under The Vagrancy Act.

Through a placement at Emmaus Preston, she turned her life around, and is now employed as the charity’s deputy community manager.

She said: “I’d get nicked for sleeping in doorways and for begging, even if someone came up to me and gave me something when I hadn’t asked for it.

“It was a nuisance, a complete waste of taxpayer’s money, but sometimes I looked at it as a chance to be dry and warm.

“When you get arrested you get put in a cell, then have to appear in court the next morning, but your fine gets wiped out because you’ve been in custody.

“I was arrested at least once a week for years, but it’s a waste of everyone’s time and money.

“It also remains on your record and you have to mention it to employers when you’re trying to escape from your past.”

Lancashire Constabulary declined to respond to a request for a comment on the arrests and prevalance of gangs of professional beggars.

This issue has been raised by Stephen Buchanan, director of Emmaus, Preston, who witnessed suspicious behaviour on a recent visit to Preston city centre.

He said: “There were four people sat in doorways. I watched them and every 45 minutes they swapped places and there was someone there siphoning off the money.

“They were telling people they didn’t need a sandwich, they needed money.

“Then they went and got into a 13 plate car. This really doesn’t help the situation. The people who really are in need would prefer food or a hot drink.”

Mr Buchanan also raised concerns that arrests for rough sleeping in inner city areas could lead to people moving into places with little shelter, meaning they become ill and put extra pressure on health services.

Despite the concerns, arrests under The Vagrancy Act have been reducing over the past four years in Lancashire.

There were 77 arrests countywide in 2012, the latest figures for 2015 showed 25.

Mr Buchanan added: “It’s good to see the number of arrests dropping, but actually the number of homeless people is increasing.

“It suggests that the police are looking at things differently. Officers do come to us and have a chat and we have a very good relationship with them. It’s about building a relationship with them.”

He added: It would be good if the officers carried information with them to signpost services to homeless people, telling them where to seek help.

“Often they are the first people to come across homeless people, so they could provide better training for officers in terms of listening and support.”

A survey carried out by Emmaus nationally found that 49 per cent of respondants had experienced negative attitudes from the general public when homeless, followed by 38 per cent from the police and probation service.

In June, Lancashire Constabulary rolled out an initiative where mental health nurses joined police officers on the beat.

The project is aimed at reducing demand on police services whilst ensuring that people get the right assistance at the first point of contact.

Mr Marsh from the Foxton Centre added: “In Preston there is a multi-agency approach to rough sleeping and the Foxton Centre carries out regular street outreach work in the evenings and early mornings to identify rough sleepers, speak to them and encourage them to take up the services that are on offer.

“We have a regular multi-agency “Rough Sleepers Panel” meeting with the local authority to consider individuals and all work together to try and deal with their often very complex needs.

“We operate a “No Second Night Out” service which helps divert those sleeping rough into emergency accommodation.

“I am worried that the recent cuts announced by Lancashire County Council to the “Supporting People “ programme will have a very negative effect on homelessness across the county, under threat are women’s refuges who help women fleeing violence and abuse, homeless family provision, schemes for homeless young people amongst others.”

Stephan Williamson, 48, has been with Emmaus Preston for seven months, having been with other branches nationally and internationally since 2011.

He became homeless after having a large amount of money stolen from him while working in Majorca.

He said: “There’s an element of people on the streets who aren’t genuine and it gives everyone a bad reputation.

“But there needs to be more places for people to go, and more services.

“There’s a problem in a lot of places where unless you’ve got a connection with that town or city, you’re moved on and you can’t get housing.

“Then the police have quite a stance on people living rough in city centres, so people move to where they feel safe on the outskirts, but they may not always be safe.

“You have to sleep with one eye open.

“I’ve seen people set on fire, urinated on by people passing on the street.

“There’s a stigma attached to it, that you’re going to have a can of Special Brew in one hand and a needle sticking out of your other arm.

“But I’ve heard the statistics that most people are only three missed pay days away from being on the streets, so it can affect anyone.

“I saw a woman crouched down talking to a friend of mine while I was on the streets in London. She was smartly dressed and like she was on her lunch break from work.

“Then I saw her again the next morning, queuing outside the day centre for something to eat. It turns out she had left her husband and didn’t know what to do or where to go.

“There needs to be more awareness of how close it is for everyone these days. It’s so easy to get into debt and to lose your job.”

Stephan said the longest he’d ever been on the streets was five to six weeks and he was put in touch with Emmaus through a day centre. He has carried out a range of jobs including furniture restoration and helping to train others.

He said: “They got me off the streets and back into the work situation as well.

“They’ve helped me get medical stuff sorted too, so I’ve been able to get my teeth sorted, which has boosted my confidence.

“They do look after you. I want to get back into the real world and get a job so I’m more financially stable for me and my mum.”