Southend Council faces backlash after rough sleepers are moved on from seafront

Southend Council has come under pressure to explain why a group of rough sleepers were told to leave Southend Cliff Gardens just days before winter shelters were due to open.

Essex Police said on Friday they had assisted the council is moving a group of rough sleepers from the cliffs area of the seafront under the terms of a High Court injunction which bans unlawful encampments in the area and after offers of support were rejected.

It was done to “ensure that everyone can enjoy the amazing public spaces we have in our town”.

But the council is now facing criticism over the move from the One Love Soup Kitchen charity, as well residents who have taken to social media to question why it was done on a freezing cold night and days before the church winter night shelter was due to open on Monday.

One Love Soup Kitchen founder, Zoey Smith, said: “They will still go back and set up there again and again and risk having their stuff taken as it is one of the only places they can go and feel safe – sleeping on high street is not safe.”

Labour councillor Matt Dent also raised concern about the news, particularly the timing.

He said: “I’m curious as to what the thought process was that led to the eviction just days before the winter night shelter opens.

“From my perspective it was out of keeping with the usual police approach, in a number of places I was disappointed as I expect more compassion.”

It has come weeks before the council begins enforcing a controversial Public Spaces Protection Order which could see rough sleepers facing fines of up to £100 if they are involved in anti-social behaviour, including sleeping in places “detrimental” to the public.

Carl Robinson, director of public protection, said: “Understandably this is a sensitive and difficult issue and whilst we understand the timing of this action being questioned, it is important to be clear that this situation has been ongoing for some time and resulted in complaints from the public, regarding the unauthorised encampment and anti-social behaviour.

“Aside from the fact the Cliffs are not a safe or suitable place to camp, over several months we have tried to help those individuals known to have stayed at the encampment get into suitable accommodation where a professional support network is available to address their needs, or reconnect them to their local area where they can receive help.

“We will continue to offer that support and talk to those who find themselves in this situation, in the ongoing hope that they will engage and start to talk to local organisations in order to build a better future.”

The council did not confirm the number of peope who were evicted from the site.

Jackie Bliss, HARP’s Chief Executive, said: “It’s an absolute tragedy that people have to resort to sleeping on the cliffs in tents during winter, risking their lives in the process.

“We have provided support, advice and accommodation to some of the people who were affected by this eviction, and we would encourage anyone who is facing homelessness to engage with HARP and other services so that we can work on a plan together to help address the issues they are facing.”

Essex Police were asked to comment but they referred questions to the council.

Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter