Housing

Most rough sleepers say they're treated unfairly by police, damning study reveals

Footage showing a police officer dragging a man on the ground in Manchester is the latest high-profile incident of rough sleepers being mistreated. An exclusive study shared with the Big Issue found two-thirds of homeless people said they had been unfairly treated by police

rough sleeper appearing to be stamped on by police in BBC video

The video uncovered by the BBC appears to show a police officer dragging and stamping on a rough sleeper in Manchester. It's the latest in a number of high-profile incidents putting the spotlight on rough sleepers' welfare on the streets. Image: BBC/X

The incident which saw a Greater Manchester Police officer drag and “stamp” on a rough sleeper has sparked outrage – but it is far from an isolated event, a new study has found.

Academics from King’s College London and Lambeth Service Users Council have been quizzing homeless people at hostels and day centres across South London over the stigma and discrimination they have experienced on the street.

Early results from the small-scale study, shared exclusively with the Big Issue, found two-thirds of those surveyed said they had been unfairly treated by the police.

The spotlight has been on the treatment of people sleeping rough since former home secretary Suella Braverman’s controversial comments in November over “street homelessness being a lifestyle choice”.

A series of high-profile events have followed while the Criminal Justice Bill is also making its way through parliament, carrying the threat of prison sentences and hefty fines for “nuisance rough sleeping”.

River Újhadbor, one of the researchers on the study at King’s College London, said: “Our research so far shows that violence towards those sleeping on the streets are not isolated incidents, but part of a pattern of hostile treatment they face every day.”

Footage of a police officer dragging a rough sleeper along the ground in Manchester in September was released by the BBC on 4 March.

The man caught up in the incident – believed to be a 31-year-old from Sudan – said he was left with blood in his urine following the stamp on his stomach.

The video, described as “appalling and degrading” by homelessness charity Crisis, saw Greater Manchester Police say the incident “must not be repeated” while the officer was given “refresher training”.

Jo Walby, the chief executive of Manchester homelessness charity Mustard Tree, told the Big Issue the incident is “clearly appalling, is unacceptable, and does not reflect our city”.

Research in the Social Response to Stigma study is ongoing but responses show rough sleepers in South London have also reported rough treatment from officers.

One person sleeping rough in South London told researchers: “[The police said] ‘Come on, mate, move. Get up.’ And they pull your legs, you know. ‘Up you get, you gotta move’. I mean, come on, be polite, man. You know, I’ve just woken up, would you like someone to fucking wake you up like that and tell you to move on, you know what I mean?”

Another said based on past experiences with the police, people are actively disengaging with them. They said: “You don’t think that there is somebody there to protect you. You know, in my mind, at that stage, I thought if I reported something like this [crime they experienced] to the police, they’re not even going to believe me. What if they’re going to abuse me? You know what I mean?”

The treatment of people experiencing street homelessness has been under scrutiny since Braverman’s comment that described bedding down on the streets as “a lifestyle choice” attracted widespread condemnation.

Just days later, a man sleeping rough in a tent was arrested when Metropolitan Police officers cleared a number of tents from outside a London hospital. Footage from the incident showed refuse workers throwing tents into a bin lorry and went viral on social media last November.

Met Police commissioner Sir Mark Rowley later apologised to the man who was arrested, Anthony Sinclair, after legal action from human rights lawyers Liberty.

A month later, footage of a homeless man’s blankets being soaked outside a McDonald’s restaurant in central London also sparked anger.

The incidents, alongside the one uncovered by the BBC in Manchester, come as the government is preparing to finally remove the 200-year-old Vagrancy Act from the statute book.

The legislation, that criminalises rough sleeping and begging and harks back to the Napoleonic wars, is due to be replaced by the Criminal Justice Bill.

But the new legislation has sparked criticism from homelessness charities and campaigners for the measures it takes against “nuisance rough sleeping” as well as the penalties which include steep fines and prison sentences.

For more details on the Social Responses to Stigma study, head here.

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