Housing

Tory plan to criminalise rough sleepers will 'destroy homeless people's spirits', MPs warned

A new law from Rishi Sunak's government could see 'nuisance' rough sleepers sent to prison

rough sleepers risk being criminalised by the Vagrancy Act

The Criminal Justice Bill will see the Vagrancy Act finally repealed but homelessness charities say there is no need for the 200-year-old act to be replaced. Image: Jon Tyson / Unsplash

Tory plans to criminalise homelessness will “destroy a person’s spirit” and make the way back for rough sleepers even harder, a former Big Issue vendor who now works with those on the streets has warned.

Homeless people face being criminalised under new Tory plans in the Criminal Justice Bill. In some cases, rough sleepers could be jailed for nuisance begging or rough sleeping, and even for smelling bad, MPs have said.

It comes as new stats reveal 620 homeless young people were arrested under the existing Vagrancy Act between 2019 and 2023, including 29 10 to 15-year-olds.

“There’s always a route back. I say it to everyone I work with, there’s always a route back, if you really want to take it. I can never tell them it’s going to be easy, because it’s not, and that’d be lying to them,” Andy O’Rourke, who now works for Crisis, told MPs on Tuesday.

“But there is always a route back. Further criminalising that individual just makes that route back so much more difficult. Sometimes it makes it impossible.

“It can destroy the person’s spirit, and sometimes that’s all you’ve got to work with.”

Speaking of his own experiences of sleeping rough during the Nineties, O’Rourke recalled being kicked awake, repeatedly arrested by police as a demonstration of their power, and having a supermarket pour bleach on discarded sandwiches so they could not be scavenged. 

During the emergency meeting for parliament’s all-party group on ending homelessness, he cautioned against further dehumanisation of rough sleepers.

“That level of cruelty has always stayed with me. Primarily I feel that people should be treated in a way that’s not as cruel as that. That seemed inhuman to me,” said O’Rourke.

“It’s not just the physical injuries that hurt the most. Being ignored, being spat on, having rubbish thrown on you. All of those things leave their own marks.”

Billed as the replacement for the 1824 Vagrancy Act – the 200-year-old law that criminalises rough sleeping and begging that the Tories have vowed to scrap – critics say parts of the Criminal Justice Bill are not needed and will have a severe impact on the most vulnerable.

MPs met to organise resistance against the bill – hoping to succeed in passing an amendment stripping out the anti-homelessness measures. The amendment is backed by cross-party MPs including Lib Dem Layla Moran and Tory Tracey Crouch.

Youth homelessness charity Centrepoint, who revealed that hundreds of young people are being criminalised under existing laws, said police already have sufficient powers to tackle anti-social behaviour.

The government promised to end rough sleeping by 2024, and instead the number of those who are homeless is actually soaring, and the response from the government is to actually criminalise those individuals,” said co-chair Paula Barker, Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree.

“The bill dehumanises those of us who are forced to sleep rough, and introduces ways for people to be criminalised based on an individual’s opinion.”

Bob Blackman, co-chair and Conservative MP for Harrow East, said: “We need to help people that are homeless, not arrest them.

“They need help and assistance, being treated with dignity as human beings rather than further punitive measures against them.”

He added that until the housing crisis is addressed, rough sleeping will continue: “If we don’t actually get genuinely affordable housing, then we’re never going to deal with the problems of street homelessness.”

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