Partnership to tackle professional begging

Partnership to tackle professional begging

This week sees the launch of a two-week trial to clamp down on the growing problem of ‘professional begging’ in Weston-super-Mare’s town centre. North Somerset Council and Weston’s Business Improvement District (BID) are joining forces in an effort to reduce the numbers of people participating in this misleading activity.

Steve Townsend, Town Centre and BID Manager, said: “People might have noticed growing numbers of people in and around the High Street who appear to be homeless, and may have spotted sleeping bags and other items left in doorways. The vast majority of these individuals have places to live, but choose to earn money by making people think they are homeless. Some even travel from outside of Weston and set-up their pitch early each morning because of the income they can generate in a day from passers-by.

“Our town centre BID wardens are out and about in the High Street and wider town centre area every day of the week, day and night, and have a very clear picture of which individuals are genuinely homeless and which are preying on people’s good nature as a means to earn an income.”

Cllr Elfan Ap Rees, North Somerset Council’s executive member for housing added: “Every week St Mungo’s homeless charity and the YMCA, who both have rough sleeper outreach services, walk the streets of Weston town centre to assess the extent of homelessness. As of this week, there are currently four people who are genuinely homeless and sleeping rough in the town. This is four more than we would like, and they are being offered support and advice to help improve their circumstances. The truth is that there is no need for rough sleeping in the town. Help and accommodation is available for those who ask.

“The impression that people will have if they’ve walked along the High Street recently is probably quite different. We are not saying that some of these other people don’t have complex needs, but pretending to be homeless and taking money from the public is an abuse of people’s good nature. They also put elderly shoppers off from visiting the High Street for fear of being harassed which affects local businesses.”

During the two week trial town centre BID wardens will remove items that appear to be abandoned and take them to the Town Hall for storage. In their place they will leave behind a receipt which will be taped to the adjacent premises. In the event that someone then returns to collect their belongings, they will see the receipt which will ask them to go to the Town Hall to reclaim their items. Items will be stored for two weeks after collection, and will then be disposed of if they remain uncollected.

Steve Townsend added: “I want to make sure people understand that we are not intending to remove items belonging to homeless people. This initiative is only about reducing professional begging. This is January, and the nights are cold. The last thing we want to do is take the sole possessions from someone who is sleeping out overnight on our streets.

“The other issue that we need to take seriously is security, and it’s important that we are vigilant about items left unattended in public spaces. We want residents and visitors to feel safe when they are in the town centre. Just because something looks like it’s a sleeping bag, we can’t be sure that’s all that is until we investigate further.”

At the end of the two-week trial of items removal the council and Weston BID will review the effectiveness of actions taken before deciding whether to continue with the removal of items.

The council and BID team are also keen to signpost people who want to support homeless people so that they can be confident that support is being used appropriately. Signs are positioned on lampposts in the town centre which urge people to help rough sleepers by giving to local homeless charities rather than to beggars on the street.

The signs say that anyone concerned about a rough sleeper should contact StreetLink, the national rough sleeping helpline, on 0300 500 0914 which alerts local services to them. They also point out that begging is a crime and can be reported to the police on 101. Somewhere to Go is a local charity supporting homeless people and anyone wishing to make a donation or find out more about their work can visit www.somewheretogo.org.uk.

Last week, the council also learned that outreach work to support rough-sleepers would continue for the next three years in North Somerset following allocation of a government grant.

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