Has Manchester found an innovative way to tackle begging?
People caught begging on Manchester’s streets are sent to the street engagement hub to get support rather than facing a fine. It’s an idea that has the Met Police and government looking on with interest
The street engagement hub has attracted visitors from across Greater Manchester and other parts of the UK. Riverside's Eleanor Watts (far right) welcomed former Lord Mayor of Manchester Tommy Judge (second left) to see the hub for himself last year. Image: Mustard Tree
Begging is a fixture of towns and cities but there is division on how to tackle the problem – a new project in Manchester could change how police approach the issue across the UK.
The plan speaks of ensuring police can move on those “causing harm and blight” while begging and attracted criticism from homelessness charities, campaigners and academics with warnings that new powers would be used disproportionately against people living on the streets.
After all, fining people who beg or sending them into the criminal justice system – particularly during a cost of living crisis – does not remove the root cause of why they were begging for cash in the first place.
Now an innovative scheme in Manchester is changing how the police are dealing with begging and it’s attracting interest from across the country.
Hosted at the base of homelessness charity Mustard Tree in Ancoats at the edge of Manchester’s trendy Northern Quarter, the street engagement hub is now the destination if you are caught begging on the city’s streets.
Where once you would have been fined or given a slap on the wrist, now police officers give people a card instead. It acts as a referral to attend the hub, which is open every Tuesday and Thursday.
People who attend Mustard Tree’s base will be met by advisers who try to find out the reasons why someone is begging and connect them with the support they need to prevent it.
There are around 15 services and organisations based at the centre, including benefits support from the Department for Work and Pensions, housing support from Riverside housing association and medical treatment available from the NHS and St John’s Ambulance.
Drugs and alcohol services are also available on site including same-day access to scripts to tackle heroin addiction. Probation and homelessness charity Coffee4Craig also have members of staff at the hub. There is even someone on-hand to help people sign up to sell The Big Issue.
People supported through the hub can also access Mustard Tree’s food club and can kit out their new property once they are housed through the furniture shop or receive vocational training.
The street engagement hub has helped 850 people in the last 12 months, according to Riverside.
Martin, 50, is one of the advisers at the hub. He was homeless himself for a decade and used to sell The Big Issue in Southend-on-Sea and The Big Issue North in Sheffield and Manchester.
Martin’s experience of homelessness, addiction and selling The Big Issue, which he found “empowering and good for his self-esteem”, is a bonus in the role, he said.
“I know from my own lived experience that I can directly relate to the majority – not all – of our customers that come through the door,” he said.
“Not all the time, but sometimes I share my lived experience with the customer if I think it can help that individual. It often breaks down barriers. I think a multi-agency approach to tackling homelessness and the issues that cause it has been needed for a long time.”
The origins of the street engagement hub began when Greater Manchester Police (GMP) began assessing arrests for begging between 2017 and 2019 to find out what was driving people to beg for cash.
PC Dave Fisher, who works on Greater Manchester Police’s street engagement team, told The Big Issue around 20 people were arrested each month and the vast majority were testing positive for Class A drugs.
The lifestyle of addiction and begging left little room for people to engage with services and it was often the case that people only received a health check when they were arrested.
“That confirmed our suspicions around drug use with the begging funding a Class A habit,” said PC Fisher.
“People are stuck in that cycle of addiction: begging, scoring and using. That is all they do every day – beg to get enough money, go and score some heroin or crack, go and use it then go back to begin again.
“It leaves no time for dealing with benefits, dealing with housing and dealing with their own health or dealing with the drug service.”
A change in approach was first trialled in 2019. A six-week pilot for a street engagement hub was set up in the city’s notorious Strangeways prison before it moved to its current base.
During Covid lockdowns and the Everyone In scheme, the hub went mobile with agencies working in vans or hotels where rough sleepers were being housed.
Now that the scheme has proven a success and it has been funded for another two years in Manchester. Local street engagement hubs are now being set up in other parts of Greater Manchester in Wigan and Leigh.
But expect to see the model pop up in other parts of the country too – government ministers have headed to Manchester in recent months with work and pensions secretary Mel Stride visiting Mustard Tree earlier in May. Other police forces have been taking note too.
“It certainly has [had a lot of interest] within GMP – there have been quite a few visits from different areas. The Met has been heavily involved. They’ve visited, we’ve had numerous meetings. DLUHC [Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities] are really well aware, they’ve visited two or three times,” said PC Fisher.
“I see the future of the model going across the country,” Eleanor Watts of Riverside told The Big Issue. “I don’t think punishing people when they’re in the height of addiction and in a poor state of mental health is the right way to go ahead. I think if we do support people we get results and it’s shown at the hub.
“There are so many good stories we’ve got from people coming to the hub once a week and not even speaking to now being housed. I always say the hub is a catalyst for change. It’s a better way of people engaging, it’s a more instant way of engaging.”
But can the model work at a time when the trust in police forces across the UK is in question?
The Met Police has been under pressure in recent months over its culture, the conduct of individual officers and allegations of institutional racism. Other forces have also faced criticism with Greater Manchester Police spending two years in special measures after a report found the force had failed to record more than 80,000 crimes.
Historically, people living on the street have been disproportionately criminalised by laws intended to tackle anti-social behaviour. A report from Sheffield Hallam University last year found police forces in England and Wales were using measures to crack down on anti-social behaviour inconsistently against people experiencing homelessness. Academics called for police to be given better training to prioritise support instead of enforcement.
The Vagrancy Act may be on its way out after almost 200 years on the statute book but it still casts a shadow over how police and poverty interact.
So it remains to be seen whether a scheme that recasts police officers “almost as social workers” – as Riverside specialist support worker Lennie Kinsella put it – can change attitudes and narratives.
“At first some people – and some of the agencies as well – were like, ‘The police were involved in that service, I can’t give them any information because if I bring customers to where the police are they’re going to get lifted and, therefore, not going to come back’,” said Kinsella.
“We’re not going to break trust. It took a few months to try and break that stigma attached to the hub. Through the two police officers who came in and implemented it, we built the trust not just off the customers but the agencies alike. It runs smoothly. People know they’re not going to come here and get arrested.”