On Tuesday October 17, the APG on Homelessness received a briefing from four serving police officers on how they work collaboratively to respond to homelessness. Here are some of the key takeaways from the meeting.
Homelessness is a complex societal problem requiring responses from a host of agencies
in their presentation, the officers made acknowledged that homelessness is a complex societal challenge which requires collaborative working across a wide range of agencies. A central role of the PSNI is to uphold the laws which have been passed by political authorities and they made the point that people experiencing homelessness can be both victims of crime as well as perpetrators. They are fully aware that people experiencing homelessness are some of the most vulnerable people living here and seek to ensure in so far as possible to support people to access the wraparound support services they need.
The officers made clear that the Vagrancy Acts in place in NI, which go back to the 19th century, are only used as a last resort to respond to begging. They made clear that these acts are not currently used to arrest individuals who are sleeping rough. Indeed, one of the officers who works in Belfast City Centre made the point that he viewed rough sleeping as a welfare issue rather than a criminal one.
The PSNI play a valuable role in Belfast’s Complex Lives Project
Part of the presentation from the PSNI focused on their involvement in the Complex Lives Project. The Complex Lives model is a whole-system approach focused on people experiencing chronic homelessness. The PSNI is one of a number statutory and voluntary sector agencies involved in supporting the project. The PSNI outlined their support of the project and the value it has in particular with regard to information sharing amongst agencies seeking to support people experiencing chronic homelessness and addiction related issues. The project already started to have positive results in Belfast and the officers are hopeful this will continue in the months and years to come.
The trends in drug use in Belfast pose real challenges
The officers provided some reflections on the current trends in drug use in Belfast and the impact this has on their work. PSNI officers have literally saved the lives of several individuals in Belfast in recent years through the provision of Naloxone, a medication which reverses the effects of opioid overdoses. However, the fact that they have had to administer naloxone so often in recent years points to the increasing challenges around drug use in Belfast.
The officers highlighted a trend towards polydrug use putting the lives of more and more individuals at risk as well as increasing levels of aggression amongst some drug users due to rising usage of cocaine. They further raised concerns about the future possibility of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl arriving in Northern Ireland. The PSNI are regularly encountering people experiencing chronic homelessness with increasingly complex needs and there is no sign of this trend changing.
Allocating limited resources
The officers gave members and observers at the APG a sense of the challenges they have in deciding what to prioritise in terms of policing in Belfast. As in any police service, there are only a limited number of officers available to respond to a wide range of different issues which arise. On a daily basis, PSNI officers are constantly having to make judgments as to what to prioritise and how they can best uphold the law. During the session, the officers gave some examples of situations they face in their day to day work which highlighted how difficult this can be in practice.
The APG is grateful to the PSNI officers for taking the time to come along and brief the group on their work. The next meeting of the group will be in December when it will hold an event to mark Homelessness Awareness Week.