Bedfordshire Police is highlighting the risks of homeless people being exploited by criminal gangs as the force backs a national campaign.
The Modern Salvery Helpline has received six reports of homeless people being exploited in Bedfordshire since October 2016.
The helpline was made aware of 68 potential victims of modern slavery in the county last year.
Bedfordshire Police is now partnering with Unseen, the charity behind the helpline, to raise awareness of the issue among homeless shelters and welfare services across the county.
Detective Inspector Katie Dounias, the force’s modern slavery and human trafficking lead, said: “Vulnerable people such as rough sleepers in Bedfordshire are preyed upon by criminal gangs and exploited.
“Across the country homeless men and women are at risk of being sexually exploited, forced into work or domestic servitude. This can include being coerced into begging or shoplifting, working in cannabis farms or in entirely legitimate industries such as construction, albeit on pay equivalent to far less than the minimum wage.
“Organised crime has been identified as more of a threat to the country than terrorism and these organised crime groups are exploiting vulnerable people for their own benefit and profit.
“Unseen’s campaign has rightly shone a light on this exploitation and it is really important that ourselves and our communities across Bedfordshire are aware of this risk.”
Bedfordshire Police and Unseen co-chair the county’s anti-slavery partnership, where representatives from different agencies work together to combat modern slavery.
Last year, in Bedfordshire there were 262 potential cases of modern slavery identified - the fifth highest of all police force areas in the UK.
Paul Prosser is head of welfare services at NOAH Enterprise in Luton, which works with and supports rough sleepers as well as other vulnerable people.
He said: “We frequently encounter people in extremely vulnerable circumstances who are at risk of exploitation. Those that are taken advantage of most frequently are people with mental health illness, life controlling addictions, limited understanding of life in the UK and difficulties speaking English.
“Some are recruited through employment agencies in countries such as Romania and arrive in the UK expecting a specific job and a standard of living that was described to them. This is often not the reality and the work, pay and conditions are far worse.
“Other circumstances are more extreme and can involve having their ID removed, living on open building sites, being paid illegal cash rates, manipulated into sex work and being requested to manage drug farms. Without having access to a safe place to stay, it is much more difficult to resist these pressures.
“NOAH Enterprise is committed to working closely with Bedfordshire Police, the Modern Slavery Helpline and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority to raise these issues and find ways to protect people in these circumstances, whilst extending opportunities and empowering people to take a different path to a safer future.”
Rachel Harper, manager of Unseen’s modern slavery helpline, said: “We know that recruitment tactics include targeting varied vulnerabilities such as poverty, substance dependencies and language barriers.
“The helpline’s data on reported cases of modern slavery and homelessness can be used to better inform prevention efforts and responses to exploitation.
“This report also demonstrates why awareness and collaboration with homeless charities, members of the public and housing agencies is crucial.”
Anyone who suspects someone is at risk of modern slavery can contact Bedfordshire police on 101. Alternatively, they can speak to the Modern Slavery Helpline confidentially on 08000 121 700