Opinion

Met may have apologised for destroying homeless man's tent – but new laws could see it happen more

The government's new Criminal Justice Bill is a free pass to draconian interventions on rough sleepers, writes Balbir Kaur Chatrik of Centrepoint

rough sleepers tents being destroyed Camden

Footage of the tents being destroyed in Camden has caused outrage on social media. Image: Streets Kitchen

Footage of rough sleepers’ tents being destroyed in November sparked fury among the public. As bin men cleared away the tents, one homeless person’s possessions were destroyed by Camden Council, and he was subjected to what has now been acknowledged as unlawful arrest.

It has taken two months and legal action, but the Metropolitan Police has finally recognised its actions were unlawful. But the incident raised bigger questions around the use of police powers against people experiencing street homelessness.  

While reports of anti-social behaviour need to be taken seriously and the tents may have appeared unsightly to nearby workers and passers-by, we must remember this was a person’s home. And the way the police went about the arrest and removal of belongings was degrading.   

It surely wasn’t a coincidence last year that after the anti-homeless rhetoric by then-home secretary Suella Braverman, the number of incidents that seemed to dehumanise those without a home increased too. 

That apology is welcome – but new legislation could mean these sorts of incidents happen with increasing regularity. 

Right now, the government is trying to rush the Criminal Justice Bill through parliament. Currently in the committee stage, the bill has already passed through first and second readings and is expected to reach report stage and a third reading within a matter of months. 

The legislation would ‘create a move on power for rough sleeping where it causes damage, disruption, distress or harassment as well as health and safety or security risks’.  

That open-ended definition is a free pass to draconian interventions of the sort the Metropolitan Police have just apologised for, and worse. 

These new laws are coming into effect despite existing powers for local councils and police to address anti-social behaviour, including Criminal Behaviour Orders, Community Protection Notices and Public Spaces Protection Orders. Powers that aren’t always used consistently or fairly, as demonstrated in Camden.  

Beyond all this of course is the government’s now-impossible pledge to end rough sleeping in the next 12 months.  

The compassion behind that aim is a million miles away from ministers’ current plans to effectively criminalise those they pledged to support. And despite indications from the government that police intervention will include signposting to support those who are ‘genuinely homeless’, we know that this simply isn’t workable in practice – local organisations are at breaking point and councils can’t keep up with demand.  

That’s particularly true of young people – some of whom are told by councils to sleep rough to ‘prove’ their homelessness. Of the 119,300 under 25s in England who approached their council for help with homelessness last year, only 65% were assessed. That means 40,000 of them didn’t even get a chance to see if they were eligible for support, let alone access it. 

Criminalising someone for sleeping rough makes no sense, as the causes are generally not criminal in nature. However, the bill in its current form seeks to perpetuate the rough sleeping crisis even further rather than tackle the root causes.   

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Law enforcement has an important role to play in keeping our communities safe – but it’s not right to ask them to police the housing crisis presided over by successive governments.  

Ministers seriously need to rethink their proposals for the Criminal Justice Bill and recognise the wider system failure of housing, which criminalising people forced to sleep rough will only compound.  

The only way forward is a fully funded and cross-government plan to end homelessness that is built on a model of support, not punishment. 

Balbir Kaur Chatrik is director of policy and communications at Centrepoint.

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