(A guest post by members of Food not Bombs Southampton, on how the PSPO ban on begging is affecting the city’s homeless).
It’s 8:30 pm and we walk along the High Street. The night is clear and noisy as Southampton University fresher students are grouping; dressed in fancy dress and odd clothing for the night out as they go to face the youth bars. University life is beginning for many and excitement is in the air. The cold night sky is full of stars and there is the feeling of an encroaching frost – definitely coat weather for most. We have come to meet some of the quieter people on the pavements and in between shop doors on a Southampton street – its homeless street dwellers.
We greet Alvaro and he chats with us as we offer him a hot drink. Alvaro speaks brilliantly with an accent; he is from the south of Portugal but has lived in Southampton for over a year. He likes to work as much as possible but has experienced discrimination since finding himself on the street. He is known as a beggar, but he says he has to beg to survive. The local police have threatened to serve him a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) and £100 fine if he sits near an ATM, but he is happy to stay away. He says he cannot pay if they are foolish enough to charge him, but he is not afraid of prison.
Next we meet Nick who is 45 and has lived in Southampton all his life. He has family in the city (he is the youngest) who he says see him as the ‘black sheep’ – his brother got married two weeks ago and he was not invited. Nick has a 5½ year old a dog called Tess who is pretty placid most of the time. Police have told Nick that his dog is threatening and deemed antisocial, and if she doesn’t wear a muzzle at all times she will get her own PSPO. Nick has a muzzle for Tess but he doesn’t like to use it because it makes her appear dangerous, when in reality she isn’t. Nick has been served a PSPO and has a £100 fine – he can’t afford to pay it so he expects to be put in prison. He’s worried about losing Tess. I ask who could look after her and he says he doesn’t want anyone else to look after her, but could perhaps leave her with Tomas.
Tomas also lives on the streets of Southampton and is Eastern European. He has recently been served a PSPO and £100 fine for begging, but he has also been involved with Probation for a different offence. When we spoke to him he was in distress over this impossible fine, but in later conversations he was calmer and told us that Probation are now helping him to sort out a number of issues, including his immigration status and access to state benefits and paid employment. At the moment, while these issues are not solved, Tomas has no option but to beg on the streets.
How many other people are there in this city that are met with police challenges, discrimination and street homelessness we just don’t know about across the city?