YORK taxi drivers say they fear abuse and intimidation of their customers will resume when a homeless drop-in centre only yards from their rank reopens today.

Drivers who work from the St Saviourgate rank in the city centre claim they have seen a noticeable improvement in their working environment - and a small increase in passenger numbers - during the past week while Carecent has been closed.

Managers of the service, known to locals as "Carebears", closed it last week, blaming "a sharp increase in drugs paraphernalia found on the premises and an increase in rudeness to staff".

Judy Horwell, police liaison officer for the York Taxi Owner & Drivers' Federation, said many drivers noticed a small rise in business and a more pleasant working environment last week.

"The antisocial behaviour of some of the homeless is affecting the taxi trade and, more importantly, is very frightening for passengers. Sometimes there can be 20 people from Carecent at a time standing around," she said.

"We understand the need for Carecent to help look after the homeless, but feel that it should be relocated. There has been a definite decline in business as people choose to phone for a private vehicle instead."

Mrs Horwell said that they had been working very closely with the police and Carecent to address the problems.

Carecent serves a hot breakfast between 8.30am and 11am, six days a week, to between 60 and 80 rough sleepers. Volunteers prepare food which has been donated by local churches and trusts, and there is also a clothes stall and advisers on hand to offer any help they can.

The organisation has been running for about 20 years and works closely with Compass drug outreach workers, resettlement officers and Future Prospects.

Project leader Alan Wright said they are doing all they could to deal with rising problems in recent weeks, which he stressed were caused by "the limited few" and coincided with an influx of users from outside York.

"We do all we can while people are inside the centre and we have been in dialogue with the taxi drivers. We are hoping that the one-week closure will stop the problem before it gets out of hand."

Mr Wright said he did not believe it would be necessary to move Carecent.

"There would be problems wherever it went, and we have centralised all our services over the past few years to limit the trouble to just one area."

Updated: 14:15 Monday, October 20, 2003