Twitter post highlights clash of priorities for police as they are alerted to used needles, excrement and rough sleepers
An officer who encountered two addicts shooting up heroin in a makeshift camp established in a residential car park has highlighted the continuing and complex problem of dealing with some rough sleepers.
PCSO Debbie Hollinson posted a tweet after she and Pc Tom Ottley – both of the Charles Cross neighbourhood team – encountered a makeshift camp set up in the car park of the Elsbeth Sitters House which sits at the corner of Hoegate Street and Notte Street on the Barbican on the evening of September 22.
She noted how two men were found with class A drugs – believed to be heroin – and were initially arrested. She also highlighted how the local authority was alerted to the camp for "urgent clearance".
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However, the post received a number of critical messages in reply, rounding on the country's current drugs police as well as the police's apparently hostile attitude to the homeless. One person argued that "these people need help, not hounding" and that "moving a problem does not stop the problem".
PlymouthLive spoke with Pc Ottley who said a Twitter post with 280 character limit did not afford officers space to highlight all the competing complexities of dealing with rough sleepers, heroin addicts and resident's valid concerns.
He said: "We are often caught between a number of conflicting priorities – the residents have legitimate concerns about where they live, excrement and used syringes being left on the ground, their car park being used as a shooting gallery and their concerns about safety. Meanwhile, we also need to support the vulnerable in our society, and that includes rough sleepers and the homeless.
"We do a lot of outreach work with organisations like PATH [homeless charity in Plymouth] and other homeless charities and part of that means keeping an eye out for rough sleepers, ensuring they are safe and also that they are signposted to where there is support available.
"We had had a number of complaints from residents about rough sleepers in their secure car park and we'd heard that some had learned how to bypass the shutters and may have shared the information with others.
"We went in to see who was there and if they were known to us or the support services."
There are many groups and organisations in Plymouth doing their utmost to tackle homelessness.
And a lot of them are always on the outlook for more people willing to give up a bit of their time to help in any way they can.
One Devon charity, Shekinah, is seen as a lifeline to many of Plymouth's homeless, which is a number increasing each year. The charity's drop-in centre, soup run and employability services are all much needed.
If you have some spare time and would like to support Shekinah by volunteering, then there are many opportunities to do so, including kitchen support and reception work. Click here to apply.
We are all human beings, and people living on the streets are no different.
It can be very lonely, and a lot of people would welcome a chat and a warm drink. Just five minutes of your time can go a long way.
If you feel comfortable doing so, buying someone a hot drink or even a meal is an easy way of showing someone else some kindness.
Not everyone who is begging is homeless and not everyone who is homeless begs for money.
Police officers in Plymouth say kind-hearted people give cash to beggars thinking they are helping those who are down on their luck and homeless.
But they stress many are actually drug and alcohol addicts who do have somewhere to live.
These people then, police said, simply use the cash to pay for more drugs and booze and put their health – and lives – at risk.
"We ask that if you feel compelled to give money, that you do so by giving it to charity," said PC Dave Ryland.
Don't know who to donate to? Shekinah, Path, Shelter, Crisis and Homeless Link are just a few.
Cold weather conditions can prove fatal for people sleeping on the streets. The average age of death for a homeless person is just 47.
Homeless shelters need bedding, beds, blankets, medical equipment, food, toiletries, sanitary products, and if no one donated them, they'd have to buy them.
Donating to food banks also helps, because it can mean the difference between someone paying their rent with money rather than buying food and ending up homeless.
If you are organising a large collection of donations, call Shekinah to see if they can help with transportation.
Homelessness is not an issue that's just going to stop overnight, but the problem is only going to get worse unless there's long-term change.
This could be changes in council or Government policy to enable the creation of more social or affordable homes for homeless people, or Government funding of the charities involved. Or it could mean changes in the law that need reviewing.
John Hamblin, CEO at Shekinah, is on a mission to end homelessness which is becoming increasingly harder with Government cuts and the cost of living rising – but he feels it can happen.
He said: "If we keep saying it will never happen – then it will never happen. People sleeping on the streets is wrong. I will strive to try and end homelessness."
Late last year The Herald focused its Big Debate on homelessness. The debate was hosted by the Herald's advanced content writer Sarah Waddington and focused on what causes homelessness, how the city is helping the homeless population and plans for the future.
She was joined by John Hamblin, chief executive of the city’s biggest homeless charity Shekinah, Steve Ricketts, Plymouth City Council cabinet member for transport and housing delivery, and Gary Nash.
Be it money or essential items, it will go a long way.
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However, Pc Ottley revealed that he and PCSO Hollinson arrived to find the two men "cooking up" and preparing to inject suspected heroin.
He said: "There were uncapped needles everywhere, human excrement – it was less than pleasant and certainly not an ideal for residents, or the two men."
He said the pair were known to police "for a number of issues" and were not willing to "engage positively" with police – nor any of the homeless charities.
Pc Ottley said: "We have kept trying to get them to engage but they've decided not to."
He said pair were initially arrested on suspicion of possession of a class A drug, however, due to evidential issues which came about during the arrest of both men by the officer, the pair were later dearrested and instead sent on their way and the local authority called to immediately clear the site of the bedding, the used needles and the piles of human excrement.
Pc Ottley said the Twitter post by his colleague, and the response to it, highlighted the difficulties police regularly face.
He said: "We will always take a pragmatic approach, identify those who are vulnerable as much as we can and try to offer support. By the same token if someone is using class A drugs, leaving uncapped needles in a residential space, we have to take into account the needs of the public as well as uphold the law.
"We can't just ignore it – we have a responsibility to the criminal justice system, the residents and the rough sleepers as well.
"It's clearly a horrible situation for the rough sleepers and they have been given opportunity to accept help, but if they turn it down we are left with fewer options.
"For those who went on to criticise my colleague, suggesting she was heartless about the issue of homelessness, I'd like to point out that a few days beforehand, in her own personal time, she had gone down to the local food bank to pick up food to deliver to a homeless person she's been trying to help. She has gone above and beyond in her attempts to reach out and build a positive relationship with the rough sleepers in our patch.
"We are not ignorant of the complexities of homelessness, and as police officers we will do what we can, but it's a much larger issue and cannot be tackled by the police alone."
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