A MOTHER and baby threatened as she tried to access her car; human excrement smeared on a front doorstep; bloody syringes left in a public toilet.

What do these incidents have in common? They were all reportedly perpetrated by rough-sleepers in Chester.

These three offences represent just a handful of the anecdotes related to me by police officers and other officials in the city over the past month.

They should probably be whispered though because there are many who would have your proverbial guts for garters if they overheard you referring to the homeless in negative terms.

This is the frustration facing the police, who have a public duty to help those in need but also to bring them to justice if they display the kind of anti-social behaviour detailed above.

I joined police officers Ben Jones and Mel Sawojka on patrol on a frosty morning and spoke to one exasperated resident who said he had experienced frequent issues relating to homelessness.

“It's usually around 2am,” said the man, who has lived in an apartment on the city centre Rows for around eight months and wished to remain anonymous.

“I get woken up because they are shouting at each other. I've tried being polite. The other day when I asked them to move they became a bit abusive. They're smoking and I'm sure they're taking drugs.”

The police officers told me they typically receive more than 40 reports a month from residents and businesses complaining about crime and antisocial behaviour caused by rough sleepers.

They may beg until late and then, unable to secure a bed for the night, congregate on the Rows, drinking, taking drugs, talking loudly and using the historic woodwork as a toilet.

It was around 8.15am when we bumped into Tony, a cleaner for the council, whose job it is to clear up after the culprits have moved on.

He told us that he knows all of the individuals who like to sleep on the Rows so gets “no aggro” from them.

This doesn’t stop them leaving rubbish, blankets, sleeping bags and bodily waste for him to clear up, however.

“They leave all of their bedding because they know they can go and get some more at Share Shop,” said PC Jones. “It all just gets thrown away; it’s such a waste.

“Handing out food and sleeping bags is not the answer. This can come across as harsh but kindness is not necessarily the solution. Our stance has always been firm but fair.”

This brings us neatly to the fundamental split in opinion among agencies in Chester when it comes to dealing with homeless people.

One side believes that providing food and clothing perpetuates the cycle of rough-sleeping by allowing people to continue their chosen ‘lifestyle’ on the streets, therefore making them less likely to engage with services.

There is no need for anyone to sleep rough, they say, as there is always a bed or ‘safe seat’ for everyone, as long as they make themselves known to the service providers.

This side is represented by the likes of the police and Foundation Enterprises North West (FENW), the current provider of homeless services in the borough until its contract ends at the end of this month.

The other side maintains that many people are left with no option other than to sleep rough, for a multitude of reasons, and giving them food, hot drinks, clothes and bedding is the humane thing to do.

This side is most publicly fronted by local businessman Adam Dandy and his ShareShop, which funds a van to tour the city handing out food, hot drinks, clothes and bedding.

Although they would never say it publicly, group one thinks group two is actually making things worse, while group two would maintain they are responding to a very real need.

In recent years the two sides have locked horns but in the past 12 months they have put aside their differences at regular meetings of the newly-formed, multi-agency ‘Outside In’ group.

The meetings, held at Chester Cathedral, allow agencies and charities including Cheshire West and Chester Council, the police, NHS, FENW, Share Shop, Chester Aid to the Homeless (CATH) and Soul Kitchen to link up and ensure they have a joined-up plan to help people on the streets.

Crucially, it also allows them to share information on certain individuals in order to prioritise those most in need of intervention.

I attended one of the meetings last month and was struck by the level of passion and commitment on display – everyone had a genuine desire to help as many people in the city as possible.

One of their primary focuses now is to enlist a host of volunteer ‘advocates’, whose job it will be to engage with the very people described above, the ‘core group’ of rough sleepers who seem to show little interest in getting help.

For Chris Jones, operations manager and inspector of constables at Chester Cathedral, this is certainly a potential solution to much of the antisocial behaviour caused by homeless people in the city centre and cathedral grounds.

I met with him to discuss the issue of homelessness and he reeled off a list of concerning incidents including one when school children had found a box of needles in a public toilet.

“Drug-taking in our toilets is a constant battle for us,” he said. “Some users are sympathetic to the building but there are others who just throw the sharps straight into the nappy bins.

“We’ve had contractors suffer needle injuries.”

On another occasion a man stripped to his underpants to fish money out of the cathedral pond, while a different homeless man – narked at being woken up – told passers-by he was “armed and dangerous”, almost prompting an armed police response.

Summer often proves a nightmare with people passed out in the grounds after taking formerly ‘legal highs’ like Spice and other drugs.

“I’ve had to call about five ambulances out over the years,” added Mr Jones.

He said it was frustrating that the ‘core group’ of homeless people in Chester often refuse to engage with services and appear on the streets, homeless and begging for money, he said.

“It then gets reported on social media and in the press that nothing is being done to help these people and that's just not true.”

One issue appears to be that homeless people often end up losing their supported accommodation because of drink and drug problems. This then leads to a spiral of further substance abuse, rough-sleeping, begging and crime.

“In my view it is less of a homeless issue and more one of social deprivation,” Mr Jones said.

Free of uniforms that often put people on edge, volunteer advocates would be able to approach beggars and rough sleepers with a view to gradually encouraging them to engage with services that could help with housing, drugs and mental health issues.

Statistics shared by FENW with the police suggest around half of those encountered by the official outreach team reject offers of engagement, or even just a safe seat for the night.

In the week before I joined the police officers on patrol at the start of February, the outreach patrol identified potentially homeless people on 29 occasions in locations such as the Eastgate Clock, The Cross, the railway station and city centre streets.

A total of 13 were begging, five were busking and four were bedded down. Four were “encouraged to engage”, but a further 14 outright “refused to engage”, according to the figures.

Estimates by city agencies and charities suggest the core homeless group consists of anything from 12 to 20 people – a number that has increased significantly over recent years.

So how can this group who refuse assistance yet continue to beg and cause antisocial behaviour be helped? How do you break the cycle?

Outside In’s advocacy programme is one way, but CATH chief executive Robert Bisset believes the answer lies in a ‘front loaded’ model of homeless services provision – one that he hopes the council’s new contractor ForViva will provide.

For him, the city needs a 24/7 day centre based in the city centre where homeless people know they can have a hot meal and drink, take a shower and wash their clothes.

These facilities will entice people through the door, and it is then that staff and volunteers can engage with them, identify issues and refer them to services they may need, such as healthcare, housing, drugs and mental health.

“The secret to dealing with homelessness is managing effectively; managing things before they get chance to escalate,” Mr Bisset said.

“You can only change people’s behaviours by talking to them and being with them, which for me means having a physical building. I’ve always said resource should be focused on the city centre as well. That’s where the clients want to be. It’s very important to have a central place where people can come.

“You have to have a service structure that tailors to the needs of individuals. We need to put all of this resource on the front end. With that in place it becomes harder for them to argue that they have no choice and there’s nothing available for them.”

That word ‘resource’ could well pose a problem though.

With Government-imposed budget cuts left, right and centre, vital services are already buckling under the strain.

“The police are the only 24/7 social service out there at the moment,” Mr Bisset said. “They do a great job.”

Homelessness is on the rise in Chester and across the country due to range of issues, not least a “disgraceful” housing policy.

“Then there’s a welfare system that’s difficult for clients to traverse, the cost of accommodation and rent, zero hours contracts, the list goes on,” said Mr Bisset.

“Homelessness is out of control in this country. It’s going at such a pace that the Government and local authorities don’t have a real answer to it.”

While FENW offers safe seats at Richmond Court overnight, CATH runs a shelter at the Harold Tomlins Centre on Grosvenor Street between 9am and 4pm Monday to Friday.

It typically sees around 30 to 40 people come through its doors every day, around 25 of which will reportedly have slept rough in the city the night before.

Many of these will be that ‘core group’ that Mr Bisset said has always existed in the city and needs “managing effectively” if the reports of crime and antisocial behaviour are ever going to diminish.

Adam Dandy painted a similar picture of the issues facing those he and his outreach volunteers meet while out and about in the Share Shop van.

These days the team encounters around 20 to 40 people on a typical night, compared to around 10 to 15 a year ago. Of these around 15 to 20 will be sleeping rough that night, he said.

Mr Dandy pointed to two big factors preventing people from engaging with the council and its current contractor, FENW.

The first is the national ‘local connection’ policy that sees authorities compelled to send people back to their home counties if they are from another area.

“For obvious reasons people don’t want to go back to a place where they had problems before,” he said.

“They’ve come here to a place that feels safe so they’re not going to engage if they think the they’ll just be sent right back.”

The second issue – and the one that affects the ‘core group’ – is drugs.

“Drugs services are the key but they are massively underfunded,” Mr Dandy said. “If you wanted to refer someone to Aqua House [Turning Point] in Chester last summer it was a nine week wait.

“That’s where they should be throwing a lot of the money. If you can get people off their addictions then it cuts the vicious cycle.”

He too believes that a day centre, open for as many hours as possible and manned by people from multiple agencies, would go a long way towards helping people get off the streets and tackle their issues.

“It’s key to be able to engage with people,” he said. “There needs to be a joined-up way of thinking. Until last year the different organisations hadn’t even sat down together.

“We need to cherry pick those individuals who we think have half a chance of getting off the streets, pulling them out and helping them deal with their addictions.”

Mr Dandy also believes charities and volunteers often have a better chance of engaging with people due to the lack of uniform.

“They get stuck in a rut and tend to have a serious problem with authority, so when the authorities try to engage with them they have no chance,” he said. “Charities like us and Soul Kitchen at least have a chance of gaining their trust.”

If ForViva’s plans do not include a day centre, Mr Dandy said he had a back-up plan to open a facility that would be open during the hours the safe seats are unavailable.

No details on the new provider’s plans have yet been publicised but details are expected to be released within the next few weeks.

One thing is for certain, there is a commitment from many people in Chester to ensure those who find themselves on the streets are given the best chance of accessing the services they need – despite restrictions on funding and resource.

As Mr Bisset put it: “It has a big social conscience this city. Everyone is desperate to help.”

Indeed, co-operation is not just preferable but vital if the police are to have any chance of staying on top of the issue, according to Cheshire Police Inspector Barry Brown.

“Our stance has always been firm but fair and we’ve continued to commit to this issue for the last 12 months,” he said. “But I think we could struggle to maintain that if we don’t have the support of all agencies, partners and charities to make this city even safer for residents, businesses and visitors.”

* If you spot someone rough sleeping then call the Rough Sleeping Hotline on 0300 123 1562 24 and the Outreach Team will come out to help them.