It has become a “soft touch” city with almost 100 beggars.
But Preston is fighting back to rid its streets of the scroungers, many of whom are not even homeless.
A new control order could be in place in a matter of months which will make it a criminal offence to beg in large parts of the city centre.
The move has the backing of businesses, charities, police and the council and is aimed at ridding the main shopping district of an intimidating army of down-and-outs.
The city held a summit meeting this week to formulate a plan of attack. And the evidence presented made for shock reading.
In the 12 months since Preston launched an initiative to clamp down on beggars, the authorities have identified no fewer than 95 people on the streets touting for cash.
In just one month, August last year, teams counted 40 actively begging. But 25 of those already had accommodation and were receiving benefits. Nine others were “sofa surfing” at the homes of friends. Only six were homeless and considered vulnerable.
Worryingly for shops, pubs and restaurants, most visitors in a survey group of 1,000 said begging was the main reason putting them off visiting the city centre more often.
“It is an issue that has been present in Preston for quite some time, but it is not exclusive to us,” said Mark Whittle, manager of the Preston Business Improvement District (BID) which hosted the summit. “Most towns and cities have issues with anti-social begging.
“This is not us being anti-homeless people by any stretch. It’s about providing support and guidance where necessary. But it’s also about working together to try and make it less attractive (to beg).”
A new Public Space Protection Order is now in the pipeline to clamp down on persistent and aggressive begging.
Soon it will be an offence in Preston to pester passers-by for cash.
Liz Mossop, the city council’s head of community services, regularly walks past up to eight beggars on her way to work from the railway station to the Town Hall.
“We want to make it pointless to beg in Preston and also disrupt them, making it difficult to sit on the streets without being moved on,” she said.
“People come here because it is easy to beg in Preston. We have got to stop that.
“We don’t want people hating street beggars. But our message is ‘please don’t give them money.’ If you want to buy them a cup of tea of a sandwich then great.”
Preston city centre PCSO Steve Connolly said all-out enforcement had not worked.
“We have got a lot of people off the streets in the last 12 months,” he said. “We identified 95 people actually begging in Preston over the year and 51 of them have stopped begging, which is a massive success story.
“But we have new faces. They have been replaced.”
One bar owner told the meeting: “It doesn’t look great in the city centre. They are just here to ask people for money, they are here for financial gain. We have to make life uncomfortable for them, but at the moment we are just stepping over the problem. We need to keep going back and moving them on.”
Former rough sleeper Karen Wallis, who addressed MPs in Parliament about homelessness in January, now works for the charity Emmaus in Preston.
She told the summit: “I have been on the streets. I used to get moved on all the time. It didn’t stop me. They could move me on as many times as they liked.
“I have spoken to people on the streets in Preston. I have said to them we (Emmaus) could take them in, yet most have said they would rather stay where they are and make some money.
They have got to want to change, but many are more interested in what they can make (begging).”
‘We are having to run the gauntlet just to get to work’
Office workers in one city centre street are being asked to identify troublesome beggars from a police ‘rogues’ gallery” of mugshots.
The action follows a complaint by the manager of a business in Cannon Street where staff claim they are having to “run the gauntlet” every day on their way into work. “There are 15 of us in the office and most mornings one of us is approached between the car park in Avenham and walking up Cannon Street,” the manager told the meeting at the Town Hall. Coming to work in a morning you are wondering whether you need to keep tight hold of your laptop, or your bag. There is now a little shanty town at the bottom of Cannon Street with people sleeping behind a blanklet strung up. We are having to run the gauntlet just to get to work.”
Anti-social orders can be used to deter vagabonds
Public Space Protection Orders have come under attack from civil liberties groups since they were controversially introduced in 2014 as part of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act.
Their broad powers allow councils to criminalise certain activities like rough sleeping and persistent begging in defined areas. The control orders can result in fixed penalty notices of up to £100 being handed out and can even result in fines of £1,000 on conviction.
Lancaster has a number governing the city centre, Ridge Square, Morecambe, West End, Heysham Barrows and Happy Mount Park.
Blackpool has introduced two - one for the town centre and Promenade and the other to cover the parks.
Burnley has one to combat anti-social behaviour in the town centre.
And public consultation has been going on this year in Chorley, West Lancashire, Wyre and Fylde to gauge the reaction to PSPOs being set up. Enforcement is carried out by police, PCSOs and council officers.
Opponents say the orders severely limit citizens’ freedoms. One, in Hackney London, which made rough sleeping a criminal offence, was withdrawn after an 80,000 petition was presented to the council.