Homelessness isn’t a lifestyle choice: people living on the streets need our help, not a criminal record under the Criminal Justice Bill

Homelessness isn’t a lifestyle choice: people living on the streets need our help, not a criminal record under the Criminal Justice Bill

As we face a cold January, we need your help more than ever in our Urgent Winter Appeal.

Our worsening housing emergency has resulted in a big rise in all forms of homelessness, with rough sleeping up 26% in a year.*

While most of the 3,069 people recorded as sleeping rough in England are men, there’s been a sharper rise (44%) among women (from 322 to 464), double that of men (22%).

We know street homelessness can kill. On the first weekend of December, as winter weather set in, there were two harrowing reports of men in Manchester and Nottinghamshire who died while sleeping rough in subzero temperatures. Just days ago, it was reported Scott Flisher (32), who’d been sleeping rough in Kent, died on New Year’s Day from sepsis and pneumonia.

The latest official data (2021) estimated that 741 people died while homeless in England and Wales. The average age of death is 43 for women and 45 for men.

Over the last year, we advised a massive 2,748 people facing street homelessness in England, via our outreach teams, legal work, specialist projects, helpline and expert local caseworkers.

But we need your help to continue to campaign for safe and secure homes. Every donation helps.

The answer to homelessness is more social homes

You have the power to end homelessness for good. It’s not inevitable: it’s a political choice. Street homelessness is a symptom of a failed government housing policy. People are homeless for a simple reason: they can’t access or afford a suitable home.

That’s why we’re calling on all political parties to support our manifesto to end the housing emergency, developed by people who know best: 75 experts with lived experience from across the country.

With a general election looming, the next government must prioritise investment in permanent and genuinely affordable council and housing association homes to reverse decades of underinvestment and sell-offs. This will not only end homelessness, but it will take pressure off the NHS, social care, and schools.

Instead, the government is intent on criminalisation

The current government wants to punish people who are homeless and destitute. This week, as people are homeless and freezing in the streets, the House of Commons will debate proposed laws, in the Criminal Justice Bill, to treat them as criminals.

The government hasn’t publicly consulted on these measures nor with people with experience of street homelessness, or organisations like Shelter, which works with people who are homeless.

When former Home Secretary, Suella Braverman announced the plans in early November, there was a public outcry. This created massive support for our opposition to these measures.

But while the government has dropped her proposal to make it unlawful for charities to provide tents, it continues to proceed with laws to criminalise people who sleep rough. The bill has been speeding through parliament since it was published last November following the King’s Speech.

This legislation is a sharp about-turn, after the government previously backed repeal of the 200-year old Vagrancy Act 1824, saying: ’no one should be criminalised simply for having nowhere to live which is why we believe that this legislation is antiquated and no longer fit for purpose’.

This legislation is more draconian than the 1824 Vagrancy Act

Some Criminal Justice Bill measures go further than the antiquated 1824 legislation. They’ve been described by Layla Moran MP as ‘the Vagrancy Act 2.0 on steroids’.

While ministers claim the measures are aimed at criminalising ‘nuisance rough sleeping’ the definition of this is so widely drawn it potentially criminalises most people sleeping rough.

The definition of ‘rough sleeping’ is so subjective and stigmatising it includes people viewed as ‘intending’ to sleep rough or ‘giving the appearance’ they intend to sleep rough. The definition of ‘nuisance’ includes ‘excessive smells’ or risks to the mental health of people.

If criminalised by these draconian laws, people will have little hope of avoiding prison. There’s no scope to appeal an on-the-spot Nuisance Rough Sleeping Direction and only 21 days to get help to appeal a Rough Sleeping Prevention Notice at the magistrate’s court. Failure to comply with either will result in an unpayable fine of up to £2,500 or up to a month in prison.

Rather than boosting investment in homes and support for people sleeping rough, the government will need to create additional prison places. Instead of giving people rights to suitable emergency accommodation, ministers expect the police to criminalise them, making it even harder to get a job to get back on their feet.

We strongly oppose the criminalisation of rough sleeping

We’re very clear. No one chooses homelessness as a ‘lifestyle choice’ if they have the opportunity of a suitable home and adequate support.

That’s why we stand with Crisis and other homelessness charities in opposing these punitive measures. We call on the government to remove them from the bill and urge MPs of all parties not to vote them through.

Instead, the government must build on its 2020 ‘Everyone In’ approach to rough sleeping by giving rights to suitable emergency accommodation and adequate support for everyone at risk of street homelessness. People are homeless on the streets because they have no rights to even emergency accommodation.  It must invest in socially rented homes for them to move on to, so they can rebuild their lives.

Thanks to the kindness and solidarity from supporters like you, we will end the housing emergency together.

Please donate today

*  Latest government figures are for autumn 2021-22 but all the indications are that there’ll be a similar sharp rise for 2022-23 when the government publishes the annual rough sleeping data in the coming weeks.