Invasion of the street drunks

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THEY are an increasingly common sight on the streets of the Capital.

The down-and-outs gathered on benches and in doorways drinking themselves into a stupour.

The intimidating sight of groups of noisy drunks has become depressingly familiar across the city, with the problems rising dramatically in recent weeks after the enforced closure of the only drop-in centre offering a refuge to many of the city's homeless during the day.

At the same time, an alcohol ban at one of their most popular meeting places, Hunter Square, has driven many of them to find new gathering spots.

Groups of alcoholics are now regularly taking over several spots around the city, including Nicolson Square, Bristo Square and parts of the Canongate and Fountainbridge.

The leading homeless charity Streetwork UK today warned Edinburgh was facing a growing street drunks crisis, and said the city needed to abandon its approach of simply trying to move the drinkers on if it was to have any chance of tackling the problem.

Tam Hendry, the charity's chief executive, said nothing would be solved by chasing the drinkers away from their favourite drinking haunts.

"We can't simply treat homeless people as aggressive down-and-outs," he said. "We have to realise that these are people with needs, and until we start to address these needs we won't have a solution."

The closure of the Ark cafe, which had seen its council funding cut, had had a dramatic impact on the city's homeless, he said.

Around 100 of them - many with alcohol problems - have been forced on to the streets during the day after the New Street drop-in centre was forced to close last month.

While they were once given food, shelter and a place to socialise for up to five hours a day, they have now been left with nowhere to go but the city's parks, gardens and streets. The growing street drinking culture has provoked streams of complaints about the damaging effect on shopkeepers' trade and the quality of life in many of the city's neighbourhoods.

Areas including the Canongate Kirkyard and nearby Dunbar's Close Garden have also become hangouts for street drinkers, where residents have complained of a "threatening" atmosphere.

One shop owner said the street drunks were one reason he had decided to move his business out of the Cowgate.

James Donald, who owns the Concrete Wardrobe, which is now based in Broughton Street, said: "There were real problems with people gathering there. They would leave bottles and cigarette butts outside the shop and urinate on the door. It was quite off-putting for customers."

Nicolson Square and St Patrick's Square, on the Southside, have also been plagued with problems, with up to a dozen people gathering each day to drink, scaring families away from the two parks.

One Nicolson Square businessman said: "They shout at each other, swear and urinate in the gardens, which there's no excuse for because there are public toilets in the square.

"It's gone from nothing to about a dozen since they were moved on from Hunter Square. The square is used for photos after graduations and also by young families when it's sunny, so it's such a shame that this has happened. The police have been round several times."

The problems have become so bad that the police this week launched an operation targeting the square.

One man who was arrested for a breach of the peace and urinating was banned from Nicolson Square until November as part of his bail conditions.

Sergeant Norman Towler, of St Leonards police station, said this kind of "positive action" was proving effective as a deterrent to other drinkers.

He said: "Within two hours of arresting that man, the rest of them had disappeared and there was a family up there having a picnic, which is the way it should be, because it's a lovely area. We have really positive legislation in place and the enforcement of it will help areas like this.

"We have previously gone down the line of Asbos for persistent offenders and we could do so again. We are working with our partner agencies on this.

"This is a problem which I personally think affects a lot of people, and especially the nearby businesses. We have gone round the shopkeepers asking their opinions because we want people to come forward to tell us about this so we can act on it."

But Mr Hendry says just banning people from certain areas is only going to shift the problems, not solve them.

He said enforcement could be successful if it was combined with support work, which engages with street drinkers rather then simply criminalising them.

A similar project in Pennywell resulted in street drinkers actually working to modify their behaviour and offering advice about how best to deal with the problems.

Mr Hendry said: "We need more than one approach. The enforcement needs to be matched with support, and the support should go in first.

"Down at Pennywell shops the support workers were able to get to know them and identify their needs.

"They were able to get some of them to access support for mental health problems and to educate them about the impact of what the enforcement measures will be.

"Rather than just criminalising them, we should be aware that some are happy to modify their behaviour."

Mr Hendry believes the sharp rise in the number of people drinking in the street shows how important it is for the Ark to reopen.

He said: "With the closure of the Ark, I certainly expected that we would see quite a significant increase, because we have got between 80 and 100 people with nowhere else to go.

"It's all about displacement, so obviously these people are going to be hanging about elsewhere because they no longer have the Ark, which was a meeting place.

"We do need a mix of enforcement and support. I think the council should lead on this strategy, but health services should take responsibility for helping people with alcohol, drug and mental health problems.

"They can also easily commission organisations like ourselves to come in and offer support."

City centre councillor Joanna Mowatt said she had received complaints about the growing problems.

She said: "The council does have an interest in trying to deal with the roots of the issue, and is looking to try to involve different agencies, but we are dealing with the most chaotic and difficult people in society. We have lost the cafe service at the Ark and we need to look very carefully at what services we are providing."

City council officials, however, said the local authority had not received "any significant numbers" of complaints about street drinking in the city.

Gordon Greenhill, head of community safety added: "As we have funded police officers across the city, we would expect them to be tasked with tackling precisely this sort of issue.

"The drinking by-law covers the entire council area, and will mean that failure to stop drinking when asked to do so by a police officer could lead to arrest and, if convicted, a fine of up to 500."

• Anyone wanting to donate money to re-open The Ark cafe, should go to www.savetheark.com