The homeless and the scroungers mar genteel Bournemouth's image

STROLLERS in Bournemouth town centre used to be safe from demands for money, except from ladies in neat hats brandishing charity collecting tins. Last week, however, Marcus Moon, 25, was asking passers-by for change - 'just 60p for a can of beer. It's to keep me warm when I'm sleeping on the beach.'

On a bench near the pier, Lindsay, 22, roll-up in one hand and bottle of Diamond White strong cider in the other, was contemplating the lengthy stagger back to her bed-sit in the suburb of Boscombe. 'But I'll drop in on my mates first for a few more drinks. I don't have to get up in the morning.' She has never had a permanent job.

Bournemouth's genteel image has taken a hammering recently. A report by the Dorset HealthCare NHS Trust last week claimed that the Boscombe area of the town is 'one of the most deprived areas in Britain'.

Police are concerned about begging in the town centre that 'verges on extortion', according to a senior officer. And the town once famous for its rich and elderly population now has soup kitchens for the indigent.

Newspaper reports, condemned by the mayor as 'scurrilous', have painted a bleak picture of jobless scroungers flocking in to fill empty hotels and guesthouses and enjoy a life of drugged and drunken ease financed by housing benefit, the dole and petty theft. The local tourist committee reports a 12 per cent fall in enquiries following the bad publicity.

In some ways, Bournemouth is more than ever a model British seaside resort. The beach, cleaned and raked daily, and the newly pedestrianised Square are devoid of litter. The clipped lawns and perfect borders of the gardens are as immaculate an example of municipal perfection as any in the land. The new Sega Centre on Westover Road, modern shopping arcades and the International Conference Centre on the west cliff sit oddly among the elegant old hotel and store facades, but there are still regular tea-dances in the Pavilion.

But a few miles down the road, in Boscombe, the story is different. It, too, has a new shopping development, incorporating the old Royal Parade arcade, tarted up with incongruous salmon-pink and terracotta paint - but many of the shops are empty or boarded up.

The trust report says there is 20 per cent unemployment in the area, 25 per cent of the population is transient, and it is home to more than a quarter of the region's drug-users. There is an eight-week wait for treatment in the drug unit, and the trust claims that crack is among hard drugs available locally.

Boscombe is also the part of Bournemouth where most hotels have been turned over to benefit claimants. 'Dolies', as they are called by locals, come to Bournemouth every year. This year, however, there are few jobs to be had for anyone, and the unemployment rate in the area is 11 per cent (the national average is 9.9). Around 150 hotels are taking in people on housing benefit - for which they get about pounds 50 per week from the Government and local authority.

'A lot of hoteliers are very close to going to the wall and are turning hotels over to DSS payers,' according to Phil Stanley, a local councillor. 'Tourists don't come to places like this and don't know what goes on.'

'There's nothing here. We'll all be taking them in before long,' says Marie Curtis, who, with her husband, Eric, runs the nine-room Oasis guestrooms in Westby Road, Boscombe, opposite two hotels that take in housing-benefit claimants.

Her lounge, with its red velour sofas, flock wallpaper and china ornaments on every surface, is immaculately dusted and completely empty. 'DSS people don't bring money into the area, but rather DSS than no one at all. We try so hard to keep the place up, looking nice - but I can see it going, I can see us losing it.'

Former guesthouse landlady Janet advertised in the local press for housing-benefit claimants. 'I was facing having the place repossessed. I took in four, just to tide me over. Two of them lived like pigs, not like people. The place was filthy, windows and furniture were broken. They were always drunk. Then they stopped paying regularly. I went in to get my money and one of them just hit me across the face. I had to call the police to get them out.'

Outside, in Boscombe Crescent, the gardens have been re-landscaped to provide less shelter for winos and tramps. Jane, '26 going on 40', and Vicky, 19, were sitting on one of the new benches. They are both living in the YWCA.

Vicky came down from Liverpool last year. 'I thought I'd get a job but I didn't' What does she do all day? 'I'm just drifting. We doss. The beach is nice.'

Jane objects to being called a dole scrounger. 'Anyone who calls us that is a dickhead. Some of us want to work, but not changing sheets and wiping bums in an old people's home, which is all I ever get offered. It doesn't pay enough to tempt me out of bed.'

Down in Bournemouth Gardens, Alan Davis was sitting over a bottle of cider. 'I came here seven years ago,' he says. 'I got a year's contract work straight away, but when that ran out there was nothing else. They offer jobs at pounds 2 an hour - I can't afford to work and lose my housing benefit.' Until recently he was in 'a nice clean hotel. A few years ago they wouldn't have entertained DSS people. Tonight I'll be up the night shelter.'

The night shelter was started by local churches in January 1993; 793 homeless people have passed through its doors since then, and more have been turned away. The shelter relies on volunteers and donations of food, clothes and money.

'We aim to help as many as possible resettle in permanent accommodation,' says the co- ordinator, Jeanne Smith. 'Our council is not at all sympathetic. They have denied for years that there is a problem with homelessness, but people have been sleeping under the pier for years.'

One of her tasks has been winning over the people who live near the shelter. 'All our ducks aren't swans,' she admits, 'but most of them are decent people who've had horrendous things happen in their lives.'

Bournemouth's air of tranquil respectability has lasted nearly 200 years. The first villa was built on the dunes in 1810, and the first guidebook was published 30 years later, with warm recommendations from a Dr Granville: 'It is a place suitable for the resort of the better classes.'

The town council is furious about the damage to Bournemouth's hard-won reputation. 'We're not going to lie down in the face of all this nonsense,' says the council leader, Douglas Eyre. 'We have two million visitors staying here every year, plus two million day visitors. We're not an old-fashioned seaside resort. We are a modern, European, cosmopolitan resort - that's the league we're playing in now.'

However, not everyone welcomes Bournemouth's sudden propulsion into the Nineties, with both its problems and its advantages. 'We don't want any of them,' said one tight-lipped elderly resident. 'Not the scroungers, and not the students - they'll only go on the dole themselves when they finish their courses. Bournemouth is marvellous - but it needs to be saved from all these layabouts.'

(Photographs omitted)

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