Extent of homeless crisis revealed as arrests spiral for 'myriad of issues'
- Credit: PA
The city is spiralling towards a homeless crime crisis with the number of arrests for people with no fixed abodes spiking.
Homeless people across the city have been left with the perfect storm of battling addictions and struggling to find suitable accommodation during a cost of living crisis.
And some sleeping on the streets have told the Evening News how homeless people have become targets for police due to drug addictions and anti-social behaviour including resorting to theft when short of food.
Nearly 1,000 arrests were made by Norfolk Police from January 2017 to December 2021 in the city centre and surrounding areas.
These statistics are recorded when the detainee said they were of 'no fixed abode' when asked by police for their address.
Inspector Graham Dalton of Norfolk Police said: “Arrests of homeless people can be related to a myriad of issues, which again can be complex, due to vulnerability and addictions.
"When dealing with any person who is sleeping rough, our main aim is to safeguard and reduce vulnerability.”
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A freedom of information request to Norfolk Police shows there were 194 no fixed abode arrests in 2021, 176 in 2020, 216 in 2019, 233 in 2018 and 158 in 2017.
In comparison, Norwich City Council received 305 homeless applications in 2021, 320 in 2020, 435 in 2018 and 372 in 2017.
Norfolk Police did not disclose the individual reasons for the arrests.
City-based homeless charity St Martins said it does not hold data on arrests but works closely with colleagues from Norfolk Police wherever possible.
A homeless perspective on the arrests
Myles Harris is a 43-year-old recovering heroin addict who is currently sofa-surfing in the city having become immersed in the rave culture with his brother Guy in the 1990s.
While Guy died 10 years ago from a heroin overdose, Myles is on a methadone prescription as he tries to turn his life around.
Myles said his relationship with the police is good but he has seen examples where homeless people have been forcibly moved on.
He recalled one young woman having her tent unexpectedly folded up and packed away by the police in London Street in April.
Homeless people were also moved on when the former Laura Ashley store in London Street was boarded up to accommodate the new Tesco store.
Mr Harris said: "I do hear a lot of stories where police can be quite brutal with people on the streets.
"If they know you are just a beggar they will generally leave you alone but then there are people actively shoplifting where they will do their job.
"I was speaking to someone the other week who used to have a £20,000 job but now does not know what to do with himself.
"He has started stealing food to survive and has been arrested a few times now."
It comes as a 46-year-old homeless man was charged in connection with attempted theft from shops in the city centre last Saturday in Gentleman's Walk.
Mr Harris said drugs and alcohol are a major link between homelessness and crime in the city.
This includes vulnerable people being coerced into county lines gangs if they have an addiction or if it means being able to stay in someone's flat as part of a county lines network.
"Alcohol and drugs is a massive problem in this city," the dad-of-two said.
"Most people want to get money for drugs. The amount of people who have been cuckooed into county lines is unreal.
"I see young people who are addicted to crack."
Daniel is a 46-year-old sleeping rough in the Anglia Square area, who did not wish to reveal his surname.
He agreed that alcohol and drugs can lead to homeless people being targets for police.
But sometimes it merely boils down to where homeless people are sleeping.
"Police can get involved if someone is blocking a doorway but then they do not know where to go," Daniel added.
"I was once told to move on but I did not know where I could then sleep.
"In Manchester, they made it illegal to sleep in the city centre at one point but where do people go? Are they just meant to die in the woods?
"I have previously found myself in the middle of nowhere freezing to death with no one to cry out to for help."
His comments come after Marks & Spencer apologised for "mistakenly" installing spikes in the entrance of the city centre store in March after homeless people were sheltering at the site.
Standing at his pitch in Exchange Street, a 63-year-old Big Issue seller was previously homeless for 10 years after being affected by the death of his wife 14 years ago.
The Scottish-born man, who did not wish to be named, said he has noticed "a hell of a lot more" homeless people in the city including those who have travelled from other parts of the country.
Commenting on why homeless people get arrested, the Big Issue vendor said: "If you're homeless you can only do two things: drink or take drugs.
"I do not think people with drink problems get enough support. They can be asked to move on by the police for all kinds of things.
"They could be drinking or street begging for example. It varies.
"If you have a drinking problem it becomes a vicious circle and it is difficult to keep away from that situation.
"Some people can just fall back into the same old habits after rehab."
How police are trying to support the homeless
Officers perform regular joint patrols with Change Grow Live (CGL) to assist with those who are homeless.
CGL is a national voluntary sector organisation specialising in substance misuse and criminal justice intervention projects.
Insp Dalton said supporting the homeless requires "a joined up, multi-agency approach" with a number of service providers in the city.
Police attend a weekly meeting with the city council, Pathways and other services to discuss the vulnerability of homeless people in the city and what can be done to build their lives.
Insp Dalton added: "Some people also choose to sleep rough when they do have access to accommodation for a whole host of complex reasons."
What is the homeless demand for accommodation?
A freedom of information request to Norwich City Council shows there are currently 3,633 on the waiting list for accommodation within the district.
However, the demand outweighs the accommodation available with only 832 properties advertised through the Home Options Allocation Scheme.
This is the way people can apply for social housing and shared ownership in the Norwich City Council area.
The city council spent £455,071 on temporary accommodation for 2020/21, the highest it had been for years.
In contrast, £350,266 was spent during the previous year and this spending was even lower at £233,012 in 2017/18.
The spending for 2021/22 had reached £260,460 by February 2022 with 85pc of spend recouped through homeless people's housing benefit and top-up payments.
Councillor Gail Harris, cabinet member for social housing at Norwich City Council, said: “Tackling homelessness, especially preventing homelessness from happening in the first place, is something the city council, along with key city partners, is deeply committed to – and which we can evidence very clearly and tangibly.
“Each client facing homelessness has a personalised housing plan - setting out the options available to them and the steps that they and the council will take to relieve their homelessness.
“The council prevents around 80pc of clients facing homelessness from becoming so, but when prevention is not possible, it is then that temporary accommodation becomes an option.
“We will continue to work with anyone in temporary accommodation to find them a more settled, longer-term outcome.”
The longest amount of time a homeless person has spent in temporary accommodation over the past five years is 351 days in the city council district.
Dr Jan Sheldon, chief executive of Norwich homeless charity St Martins, believes authorities need to focus on permanent housing solutions including modular housing.
She said: "We know that there is a housing shortage and that we need to build 90,000 good quality social homes every year to start to address the housing crisis.
"The government should be focusing on this objective rather than temporary accommodation which doesn’t give people a sense of security or belonging."
What happens to homeless people after prison?
Another service providing support is Only A Pavement Away, a charity dedicated to helping prison leavers and those facing homelessness to get into careers within the hospitality sector.
The charity's 'Back on Track' backpack provides prison leavers with some of the basic essentials needed to immediately start looking for work.
This includes a charged, pay-as-you-go mobile phone, essential toiletries and details of how to access support services such as a free clothing service to support interviews.
“We’re committed to working with homeless prison leavers to give them the additional support they need to find work on the outside and helping the hospitality sector to give someone a life chance and potentially, grow new talent within the sector," said Greg Mangham, founder and chief executive of Only A Pavement Away.
“With just £76 in their pocket and a complex benefits system, it’s imperative that prison leavers get support quickly, have access to opportunities and employers willing to help them develop life and work skills so they can move forwards.”
HMP Norwich has begun working with Only A Pavement Away to distribute these support packs to those in need.
The prison did not disclose how many survival packs have been distributed, and they denied that tents have been handed out to prisoners upon leaving the Knox Road site.