Protesting may be hard work but left wing comedian Mark Thomas led a ‘lying-down’ demonstration in Chester’s Town Hall Square to raise awareness about proposed measures he argues will criminalise the vulnerable including rough sleepers.
Labour-controlled Cheshire West and Chester Council is currently consulting on a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) which aims to tackle people sleeping in the street, beggars, legal highs, inconsiderate buskers and people who feed birds within a designated city centre zone through £100 on-the-spot fines rising up to £1,000 at court.
Mark, who was wearing pyjamas and clutching a hot water bottle, later led a lively march around the PSPO boundary by pulling busker Jonny Walker on a trolley bed with chants of ‘Food not fines!’ accompanied by music from buskers including Rusty McMabb from the band Galleon Blast.
Mark said: “The problem is, this is going to outlaw sleeping in the street, it’s going to outlaw lying down on the street so it’s going to become illegal to lie down on the street or sleep in the street. Just from the point of view of civil liberties that’s nuts. But looking at it from a point of view of homelessness it will criminalise the homeless who haven’t got a huge amount of money, they are going to get a £100 on-the-spot fine for sleeping, which is ridiculous.
“If you’re homeless it’s not a question of are the council going to give me a bed for the night? It’s really, really simple. Through a series of events you’ve ended up being homeless, this is where you are. The last thing you need is somebody saying we are going to criminalise you and fine you £100. How do the council think they’re going to find that money?”
The comedian, who jokingly revealed that he normally wears a ‘silk thong in bed’, said PSPO zones simply ‘decanted’ the problem elsewhere.
“What good does that do apart from criminalise homeless people and this has happened in Hackney where they’ve had to drop the issue, in Birmingham they’ve just dropped their PSPO, in Oxford they’re having to revisit the whole thing because of a legal challenge.”
Cheshire Police and the CH1 Chester BID company have been accused of being the real driving force behind the PSPO. BID chief executive Rita Waters and city centre manager Peter Lewis did turn up out of curiosity along with Labour councillors Bob Bissett, who runs the Chester Aid to the Homeless charity, and Cllr Richard Beacham, who watched from afar. There was not one police officer to be seen even when the march occasionally held up the traffic.
BBC TV and radio were there to film the demonstration which comprised homeless people, volunteers who work with the vulnerable, shopkeepers, buskers and even a former resident of the anti-fracking camp at Upton.
Busker Jonny Walker wore pyjamas, slippers and his wife’s dressing gown as he was pulled around the city on a mobile bed by funnyman Mark Thomas and unnecessarily revealed he normally “sleeps naked but not with Mark”.
He disagrees with rules that would ban busking except in designated areas and could lead to quality assessments.
'Public spaces should belong to all of us'
He said: “I think this is part of an overall agenda which is about privatising the public space in the city – it‘s called a Public Space Protection Order and that’s for a specific reason. It’s meant to protect. The idea of some people in the business community, and some people in the police particularly, that certain people don’t belong in the city centre, people who ‘make it unsightly’. Actually in the report it said we want to create a better image for the city centre but I think public spaces should belong to all of us.”
Kelly, 28, who has been homeless for six years, sleeps where she can but couldn’t afford the £100 fine if confronted for sleeping in a public place within the PSPO area.
She said: “Why be fined for trying to sleep? I can’t even afford a cup of coffee, mate.” She added: “There’s nothing for homeless people in Chester.”
Chester resident James Corbett is one of a group of friends who helped set up the Soul Kitchen soup kitchen for homeless people which provides 30-40 rough sleepers with food, sleeping bags and advice in the middle of the Mecca bingo roundabout every Saturday evening between 4-8pm. They receive donations but sometimes the volunteers pay for the goodies out of their own pockets.
James said: “We are here against the PSPO which is a way, effectively, of criminalising the vulnerable.” He said of the demo: “It’s a wonderful atmosphere. We’re in this together.”