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Managing Rough Sleepers on Commercial Properties: Tips and Best Practices

Updated: Apr 19

Rough sleeping is a growing problem across the UK, a situation compounded by the Pandemic and cost of living crisis.

Homeless woman seated on the street outside commercial building
Rough sleepers have already been asked to leave a number of hotels in London, prompting fears that hundreds will be forced back onto the streets. Credit: The Independent


Security companies are increasingly being asked to move on rough sleepers from commercial property, or to recommend measures that can assist property owners in combating this growing problem.


As the owner of a commercial property, you want your business to be safe from crime and damage. You may have noticed homeless people sleeping in public areas around your business or rough sleepers in need of assistance. While it can be uncomfortable to come across people sleeping rough, it is critical to ensure the safety of these individuals, your staff and property.


In this blog, we’ll discuss:



Scale and impact


The increasing scale of homelessness in the UK is a matter of considerable concern. In September 2023, England witnessed a troubling rise in the number of individuals estimated to be sleeping rough. During this month, an estimated 8,442 people were found sleeping rough, a marked 27% increase from the same period in the previous year. This upsurge underscores the dynamic and often transient nature of rough sleeping, a social issue that requires urgent attention and action.

 

Notably, on a single night in September 2023, 3,418 individuals were recorded as sleeping rough, representing an 18% increase since June 2023. This figure, while significant, forms just a fraction of the broader homeless population in the UK, yet its growth is alarming. Of particular concern is that a significant 32% of these individuals, approximately 2,440 people, are long-term rough sleepers.


These statistics highlight a critical and escalating problem - rough sleeping takes an economic toll on local authorities through increased policing and services for homeless people. It also has a negative effect on local businesses by driving away customers and damaging local economies.


Why people sleep rough


Rough sleeping is a complex issue and understanding why people sleep rough can help in tackling the problem. The most common causes of rough sleeping are poverty, homelessness, addiction, mental health issues, and a lack of affordable housing. Therefore, it is vital to remember that those sleeping rough may have experienced trauma in their lives and may require specialist support to get off the streets.


Understanding the root causes of rough sleeping can help businesses develop strategies to address the issue more effectively.


The demographics of people who experience rough sleeping


Rough sleeping is a serious social issue that disproportionately affects people with complex needs. Rough sleeping is most often experienced by people who are homeless and have mental health issues or substance misuse problems.


According to the office for national statistics, the majority of people sleeping rough in England are male, aged over 26 years old and from the UK. Male rough sleepers outnumber women at a ratio of six to one.


What action can property owners take?


There are numerous steps property owners can take to address rough sleeping on their property. The first step would be to contact your local authority or other organisations, such as housing charities, to find out if they are willing to speak with the rough sleepers, by providing support and temporary accommodation.


Property managers should be encouraged to utilise innovations such as StreetLink to support rough sleepers in accessing help and support. StreetLink is a website, mobile app and phone service for England and Wales, which enables people to send an alert when they see someone sleeping rough to connect that person to local support services that can help to end their homelessness.


One of the main issues with rough sleeping on commercial property, both occupied and void, is the accumulation of waste, such cardboard boxes, food waste and in many cases human excrement. Due to the prevalence of drug use amongst rough sleepers, there are also dangers associated with discarded syringes and other paraphernalia.


Wilson and Kelling's 'Broken Windows' theory argues that the first line of defence in the protection of property, is property upkeep.


Their theory suggests that poorly maintained areas indicate no one cares which in turn encourages anti-social behaviour, such as vandalism, graffiti and other forms of criminality.


This assertion is supported by one of the key CPTED concepts, territorial reinforcement which argues that deterioration and blight indicates a greater tolerance of disorder. Care and maintenance being the remedy. In the case of rough sleepers this entails ensuring that rubbish, drug paraphernalia and human waste be removed at the earliest opportunity.


Caution is always advised when removing objects belonging to rough sleepers, not only due to the risks associated with 'sharps', but also the potential for confrontation. It is worth noting that what you may consider rubbish maybe viewed by another as prized possessions.


Only remove such objects if they are left unattended and it is safe to do so. Any rubbish, including human or animal excrement, syringes, shattered glass, and food, should be cleared away on a regular basis with the area thoroughly cleaned using suitable disinfectants.


Specialised cleaners may be required in certain cases, such as when there are sharp objects or faeces that must be handled properly.


Preventing rough sleepers


Property owners have a responsibility to deter rough sleeping from their premises. They can do this by taking a number of steps, including:

  • Installing CCTV to monitor areas of concern

  • Installing security features such as lights and fences to remove areas of concealment and restrict entry to areas of the property

  • Installing prohibition signage warning against trespassing or loitering

  • Providing rough sleepers with information about local homeless services

It's also important to note that property owners should never use force to remove rough sleepers off their property.


Installing physical deterrents or security measures


It is important for property owners to be aware of their rights and responsibilities when it comes to rough sleeping on their premises. Physical deterrents or security measures, such as CCTV cameras, lighting, fencing and locks, can help deter rough sleepers from at risk areas.


Additionally, posting signs warning against trespassing or loitering on your premises can help reduce the chances of homeless individuals sleeping on your property by establishing rules and encouraging compliance.


There are also a range of physical deterrents that could be deployed, often referred to as 'Defensive Architecture'.


Defensive Architecture


Defensive architecture is a term used to describe physical features or security measures that are installed in order to deter rough sleeping or other activities deemed undesirable. Common examples of defensive architecture include:


Bollards:


Bollards are vertical posts that can be used to block entry to areas of concern, such as alleyways or car parks. They can also be used to create barriers between rough sleepers and the public, as well as help control pedestrian traffic flow.


Spikes:


Spikes can be installed on ledges, window sills and other flat surfaces in order to make them inhospitable for rough sleepers. They can also be used to deter birds from roosting on buildings or ledges.


Rocky Borders:


The use of coarse rocks positioned around the property to stop people from sleeping or begging in areas around the building.


Barred Corners:


This involves the installation of bars across corners where rough sleepers have been known to congregate.


Planters:


Barriers containing foliage to prevent access to areas.


Retractable spikes:


Positioned alongside external doorways that are raised out of hours to prevent rough sleepers setting up base in doorways.


Fencing:


Fencing can be used to enclose areas of concern, such as car parks or vacant lots. It can also help control pedestrian traffic flow and create barriers between public and private space.


The use of Defensive architecture is incredibly emotive and could potentially single out a property, or company as being uncaring when it comes to the plight of the homeless. Such measures are effective, however they should only be considered when all other avenues have been exhausted.

If rough sleeper behaviour persists despite the installation of physical security measures it may be time to consider the use of more direct methods of intervention, such as security guard patrols.


Employing private security firms or guard dog services


Private security firms or guard dog services are often called upon to help deter rough sleepers from entering private property, or encouraging rough sleepers to move on. Security measures taken must be proportionate and must not infringe on the rights of individuals or groups.


It is also important to remember that homelessness is an issue that requires empathy and understanding, rather than judgment or scorn. In order to ensure safety, it is best if all parties involved in a homeless situation are respectful and considerate of each other's needs and concerns.


Reporting criminal activity to the police


It may be necessary to contact the police or the local authority if rough sleepers are engaged in criminal or nuisance behaviour, such as drug use and/or aggressive behaviour that directly places tenants and users of the property at risk.


Such incidents when reported should be accompanied by witness statement, photographs, or CCTV video of high enough quality to identify individuals in order to encourage authorities to take action. The Police will only respond if there is risk of violence or evidence of criminal action.


The following incidents should be reported to the Police:


  • If rough sleepers are engaged in begging on your property, which is an offence under section 3 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 or section 4 which covers a range of offences associated with rough sleeping.


  • If threats of violence or verbal abuse is directed against tenants and property users , under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 which provides local authorities and the police with powers to deter antisocial behaviour.


The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 saw the repeal of the Vagrancy Act, including repealing section 3 of the Act, which currently makes begging an offence, and section 4 of the Act, which currently creates a range of offences including persons who sleep in an outdoor setting, or in any deserted or unoccupied building.


However, while repeal is now matter of law, the Act is still on the statute books awaiting a suitable replacement. The Government claimed that this was to allow time for further consultation, and promised to enact repeal within 18 months.


Working with local homeless outreach services


Property owners who are faced with homeless people sleeping on their premises should work with local homeless outreach services to help address the issue of rough sleeping on their property.


Local authorities can provide advice and support on how to deal with any issues that may arise. In particular, property owners should ensure that they are aware of the relevant laws and regulations when dealing with rough sleepers, particularly in relation to property rights and health and safety.


It is also important to remember that rough sleepers are vulnerable people who need to be treated with compassion and respect.


Frequently Asked Questions


What is the best way to approach someone sleeping on a commercial property?


The best way to approach someone sleeping on a commercial property is with respect, kindness and caution. It is important to recognise that rough sleeping can be a difficult condition and that homeless people may have experienced traumatic events in their lives.


If you come across a rough sleeper, it is advisable to contact local homeless services or charities for assistance in dealing with the situation.


These services can provide both practical and emotional support to the rough sleeper, whilst offering options of alternative accommodation if available. Furthermore, it is important to ensure that relevant laws are complied with when managing rough sleeping on commercial property.


How can I ensure the safety of my staff and other customers when dealing with rough sleepers?


If you are dealing with rough sleepers, the safety of your staff and customers must be your top priority. Here are some steps you can take to ensure this:


  1. Place signs in visible locations declaring that sleeping or loitering is not allowed on the premises. This will help deter rough sleepers from entering your property in the first place.

  2. Install security lighting or CCTV cameras to further discourage any potential rough sleepers.

  3. Restrict access to areas of concern through the installation of fencing and other physical security controls.

  4. Train your staff on how to handle situations involving rough sleepers, such as offering help and support instead of driving them away.

  5. Put a policy in place that sets out the steps to take if you encounter a rough sleeper on your property. This could include providing referrals for services such as shelters, homelessness charities or health services.

  6. Utilise the services of private security companies to conduct regular patrols of at risk areas, both as a method of deterrence and to safeguard tenants and property users.


Are there any charities or organisations that can help me handle this situation in an effective manner?


Yes, there are many charities and organisations that can provide assistance in handling rough sleepers on your commercial property. It is recommended to start by contacting a local homeless shelter or community organisation to get more information about services available to you.


Speak to the police or local council to find out what assistance they can offer.


You may even consider working with local charities and homelessness services to help rough sleepers find accommodation or mental health support if required. Social workers and homelessness outreach workers can also be of assistance in these situations, so reaching out to them would be beneficial.


With the right support, rough sleepers can move onto more stable accommodation and away from sleeping rough on your commercial property.


Sources of Support:



Conclusion


There are a range of steps that can be taken to address the issue of rough sleeping on your property. Any approach should be proactive with the aim of dealing with the issue as soon as it manifests (Broken Windows Theory).


Whatever approach is adopted it is worth remembering that rough sleepers are human beings that deserve to be treated with respect and compassion. To quote the late Leo Buscaglia (1924-198); Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”



 

About the writer: Justin Quigley, is a recognised security expert in the protection of property through the introduction and deployment of technical and non-technical security measures, including CCTV towers, video verification systems, fencing, perimeter protection technology, hostile vehicle barriers, alarms and analytical camera systems. He is a prolific writer on the subject of crime prevention, security technology and void property security.


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