Policing the street population in the context of COVID-19

By Prof Clifford Stott and Prof Ben Bradford and Dr Arabella Kyprianides | 08 June 2020

As multi-agency efforts continue to protect homeless people from Covid19 in the UK, the police in London have also been very busy. While policing street populations often revolves around enforcing the law and preventing ‘anti-social’ behaviour, the primary focus in recent months has been getting homeless people off the streets and into accommodation. There has been little government involvement in how the police deal with the homeless ‘on the ground’, beyond issuing the instruction that all rough sleepers must be housed. The how – logistics, food, resources ­– has all been organized at the local level.

From an operational point of view, things have gone well. Since the UK was put into lockdown at the end of March, more than 5,400 homeless people have been put into accommodation in Ibis hotels, Travelodges and Holiday Inns across the country. This has been a result of effective multi-agency working: police have been working alongside charities and local councils to secure accommodation capacity. Indeed, local authorities were in a good position to address the government’s request to house all rough sleepers so quickly because this multi-agency framework was already in place, allowing partner agencies to operate collectively on a larger scale to meet the extra demand created by COVID-19.

However, this process did not come without challenges.

Some areas have become a ‘victim’ of their own success. Doing well to house the street population has resulted in a large volume of homeless people migrating to these areas from elsewhere, increasing demand on local authorities.

Since March, there have been, and still are, a substantial number of homeless people that are non-compliant, still out on the streets, who refuse to engage with the police and other agencies and are not adhering to social distancing guidelines. In addition, some people placed in accommodation have been rejected, or later evicted, due to problems associated with substance abuse. These continuing issues have made the task for front-line workers to secure accommodation for the homeless tough.

What is more, public reactions to policing measures have not always been positive. Housing homeless people in residential areas has resulted in locality issues, and public reporting of anti-social behaviour and visible drug-taking. Such issues create demands for police that can be hard to resolve.

Local authorities are also beginning to see street population activities return to ‘normal’ – for example, begging has resumed in familiar locations. Recent increases in the use of public transport, as restrictions start to lift, has resulted in an increase of activity at stations.

Thousands of rough sleepers are now off the streets and safely self-isolating where necessary. But the exit strategy is a key concern. Partner agencies have agreed to develop a strategy to deal with venue decanting when the lockdown is over although this has yet to be finalised. The rapid pace of developments, and government failures in communication, have made this task significantly more challenging.

The pressure is on the government to ensure that no one has to go back to the streets. But existing funding is due to run out in mid-June, and without new funds there could be a surge in homeless people returning to the streets even before the lockdown is completely released. Many homeless people have finally been housed, allowing local authorities to address their addictions, mental health and other problems like never before. This has been one of the silver linings of this dreadful pandemic, and failure to follow through on it would represent a huge missed opportunity.

Dr Arabella Kyprianides is a research fellow in policing and Professor Ben Bradford is a professor in the department of security and crime science at UCL. Professor Clifford Stott is a professor of social psychology at Keele University.

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