POLICE say they are getting tough in a determined bid to end begging and rough sleeping on the streets of Stourbridge.

Shoppers and residents in the town have become overwhelmingly concerned at the presence of people camping out on the streets and asking for change in the High Street, at the entrance to the Ryemarket and in the town's underpasses over the past 12 to 18 months.

Police say they are well aware of the issue which has divided the community.

While some shoppers and pubgoers are happy to give generously to those perceived as homeless - some traders say those on the streets are not genuinely homeless but professional beggars and they say the situation has been putting people off visiting the town, while customers and night-time revellers have complained of feeling intimidated at being asked for money on their way to the shops, bars or cashpoints.

One trader, who asked not to be named, said: "We've got beggars on every street corner. It's bringing the town down. Stourbridge has never been like this."

Another said: "It's not beggars - it’s scrounging."

Stourbridge Police say they have been referring rough sleepers to Dudley Council's homeless team to help them change their circumstances and those that have not attempted to work with the authorities have been issued with community protection warnings - and those who have failed to heed the warnings have been issued with a community protection notice which gives officers power to arrest or prosecute the recipient failing to comply with the conditions.

To date, four community protection notices have been issued and three community protection notices.

Sergeant Joanne Fletcher, of Stourbridge Neighbourhood Team, said: “We are committed to helping anyone who find themselves falling on hard times. Officers work tirelessly with vulnerable members of the community to get them the help they need. But the homeless people spoken to have all refused to engage with us or the local authority teams and charities and are making lifestyle choices.

“Keeping Stourbridge safe is important to us and we have little choice but to now move to an enforcement phase with this group of people."

Stourbridge MP Margot James said she has received many letters and emails about the growing number of people on the streets in the town - believed to be around nine at present - and she told the News: “The police have stated clearly that they attempt to offer support to any individual who appears to be sleeping rough or begging locally as a first step. It is vital that support is focused on those people who are genuinely homeless, and that the kindness of the public is not abused.

"The police and council do however recognise that there are often very complex reasons why individuals may be refusing help.

"I am confident the police, with the help of the local authority, will explore every possible avenue to help those who are on the streets for whatever reason before issuing a community protection notice."

She said she would "continue to work very closely with police" to help tackle the issue and she said the new Homelessness Reduction Act, which came into force on Tuesday, would require councils to provide early intervention - to help prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

Meanwhile - Vi Wood, who runs charitable organisation Leslie's Care Packages for the Homeless which gives out packages containing toiletries, biscuits, crisps, cereal bars and bottles of water to those sleeping rough, hopes to secure a base in Stourbridge to help the homeless and other vulnerable people and she added: "We really do need a place in Stourbridge. It wouldn't just be for the homeless. It would be for the lonely and the elderly and people who struggle to feed their families."

Vi, who founded the organisation after she and her children nearly found themselves homeless following the death of her husband Leslie, currently runs her care initiative from her home in Wollaston but she said: "My house is really not convenient anymore. It’s getting too much. We need somewhere people can go where we can sort and distribute items. We need somebody who has got a large business and a bit of concern."

West Midlands Mayor Andy Street said Dudley Council had done a "good job this winter" in ensuring there were more facilities and hostel places available than the number of rough sleepers in the area and he said the West Midlands has just won support to become the national pilot for the government's Housing First Scheme - adding: "That initiative will see rough sleepers who genuinely don't have anywhere else to go offered a permanent location. There will be support for rough sleepers in all seven local authority areas and there will definitely be provision in Dudley."

The police are urging people to donate to charities such as Leslie's Care Packages for the Homeless - www.lesliescarepackages.org - or Shelter - www.shelter.org.uk - rather than give directly to people on the streets.

Members of the public concerned about anyone sleeping rough can contact the Homelessness Prevention Team on 0300 555 2345, or use the Streetlink reporting tool at www.streetlink.org.uk.