"PROFESSIONAL" beggars are earning as much as £200 a day on the streets of Hampshire's cities posing among the homeless, it has been claimed.

• Bogus beggars make life hard for Southampton's homeless >>
• Homelessness on the rise in Southampton >>

Now one council is set to introduce new powers to crack down on the issue, which some are calling a "blight on the city".

But at the same time, the number of people who are actually homeless has also increased.

Civic chiefs in the south say "professional begging" has increased in Southampton and Winchester.

But it could now be banned in five areas of Southampton if the new police powers are approved.

A Daily Echo investigation has revealed that the numbers of conmen coming to our streets to beg has risen, but also that the numbers of people sleeping rough are also on the increase.

Hampshire police say they will only use the powers as a "last resort" but it could result in beggars being arrested if they continue to do so.

Both the police and council chiefs say the new powers are not designed to "victimise" genuinely homeless people, but to crack down on those who they say often come from outside of the city to beg, feeding drug or alcohol habits or after their benefits have been stopped.

In Southampton Labour council housing chief Cllr Warwick Payne said: "There has been a feeling that street begging has been on the increase and is becoming ever-more overground and obvious.

"The council has reason to believe many of those who are begging either have somewhere to live or could have access and have turned it down.

"Therefore in many cases the beggars are relying on the generosity of our residents to fuel drug and alcohol habits.

"This isn't about cracking down on rough sleepers - this is about begging and the two issues are different."

He added that it can lead to people feeling "threatened and intimidated" while saying some feel begging is a "blight on the city".

Consultation is taking place now on the new Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) that could ban begging and street drinking in the city centre, Portswood Broadway, Shirley High Street, Woolston High Street and Bitterne Precinct.

People could then be arrested if they do not comply with the orders.

The Daily Echo monitored the city centre streets to observe "professional begging", but did not see anyone who was begging and then left the centre by catching public transport or getting in a car.

Daily Echo: Melissa Adams in Southampton

Cllr Payne continued: "We have heard of beggars being able to make up to £200 a session, so that does raise the probability of what we call professional beggars operating in Southampton.

"I think what we have is that there are quite a few people who feel Southampton is a soft touch and perhaps take advantage of that."

He says the information on the rise in street begging has come from police feedback and through conversations the council's street homelessness prevention team have had with people on the streets.

Cllr Payne added that benefit sanctions may also be behind the rise in begging.

When asked what the council's advice would be to residents when they are asked to give money, he said: “It should always be the decision of the individual, and there is no right and wrong, but if you give money to a beggar you’re taking a chance that it might be spent on a bed for the night, while if you support a charity, you know that it will.”

The orders are also supported by the Conservative opposition, with group leader Jeremy Moulton saying:

"It's long overdue.

"The city centre has got lots of beggars, it's very apparent as you walk up from the station into the centre.

"We have been pushing for this - it causes concerns around safety and is not good for the image of the city where people are trying to run businesses and attract people to the city.

"I've been told PSPOs have been introduced elsewhere in the country and have worked. 

Daily Echo:

"But we have got people who are genuinely homeless and particularly in the winter months we should be doing everything possible to find housing and support for them."

Consultation on the plans takes place until December 11 and residents are being urged to take part on the council's website.

The orders may be introduced before Christmas.

• Bogus beggars make life hard for Southampton's homeless >>
• Homelessness on the rise in Southampton >>

Superintendent James Fulton, Hampshire Constabulary's district commander for Southampton, said: “The police powers should be at the farthest end of what this is about – this should be a springboard for the city dealing with a problem that affects the general public and businesses, and the police powers should only be used as a last resort once education, outreach support and other methods have not worked.

“Ultimately what we want to do is to make the city centre and other public centres look and feel safer.”