Police in Devon have condemned a group that claims to be photographing homeless people and threatening to expose those who are “professional beggars”.
The campaign sets out to photograph rough sleepers in Torquay and threatens to publish their photos if they do not leave, saying only two of the 17 people photographed in the town were genuinely homeless.
The local council said it knew of one person who was wrongly identified as being “fake homeless” and had been abused on social media as a result.
One of the organisers posted a photo of a rough sleeper to Facebook, calling them ”#Fakehomeless” and claiming they had made five rough sleepers agree to leave by threatening to publish their pictures.
Ashley Sims told the BBC he was doing it to protect “genuinely homeless” people who were getting “grief from professional beggars”.
“Have you noticed there’s less beggars in town today?,” he wrote.
But police and a homelessness charity condemned the campaign.
“The dangerous practice of ‘outing’ people as professional criminals, based on often unverifiable information, fails to acknowledge the very complex vulnerabilities and chaotic lives of those concerned,” Superintendent Jacqui Hawley, from Devon and Cornwall Police, said in a statement.
“We in no way condone this activity and take the view the campaign should cease with immediate effect.
“We support a multi-agency approach to addressing Torquay’s town centre problems and encourage those driving the campaign to engage with police and the local authority to support a safe and effective mechanism to address these issues.”
A Torbay Council spokesperson said it had “very real concern” about the campaign.
The council said: “Torbay Council knows that an individual’s circumstances can frequently change, sometimes on a daily basis, meaning that being able to make a judgement on whether someone is street homeless or not is in many cases a fact that will remain accurate for only a limited period of time.
“We are already aware of an individual wrongly identified as ‘fake homeless,’ who has then been the subject of abuse via social media. The actions being proposed by this campaign encourages vigilantism and enables anyone so-minded to target people, and is therefore unacceptable.
“Such behaviours cannot be supported or condoned on any level by Torbay Council. We have asked that the campaign be halted.”
The campaign comes after the leader of Windsor Council accused some of the town’s rough sleepers of choosing to be homeless and urging local police to move them on before the Royal Wedding in May.
Nick Pannell, who chairs local homeless charity Friends Of Factory Row, told Devon Live: “This persecuting of vulnerable adults on our streets is a disgrace and those involved in encouraging it should be ashamed of themselves.”
Pannell said Sims, a local businessman, was doing it in conjunction with Humanity Torbay, a group whose website says it is “working on a strategy that will hopefully help sort out who the genuine homeless are and who the actual professional beggars are”.
One homeless man in the town told the BBC the campaign was “bullying”.
In his Facebook post from last week, Sims said the campaign would not publish photos of three beggars “for compassionate reasons, due to severe mental health issues and putting them at high risk”.
He warned seven more would see their photos published.
Someone else urged Sims to expose the five who had, he said, left Torquay to “protect their benefits”.
Sims replied: “No, they’ve gone, it ain’t a witch hunt.”