Quaker MP calls for end to criminalising homeless

‘We should not be threatening to fine people who have virtually nothing.' Quaker MP Catherine West calls for an end to criminalising the homeless

Quaker Homeless Action (QHA) has welcomed a Quaker MP’s call for an end to what she describes as ‘the criminalisation of homeless people’.

Supporting the Labour Party’s proposal to repeal the 1824 Vagrancy Act, Catharine West, the MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, signed a letter published in The Guardian on 18 March which said: ‘The Vagrancy Act is just one segment of a system of criminalisation of people experiencing homelessness and rough sleeping. Public space protection orders can make it illegal to beg or sleep rough within a given area. A raft of other anti-social behaviour measures, from criminal behaviour orders to dispersal orders, give police and councils powers to move rough sleepers on, or give them a hefty fine.’

The Labour MP told the Friend: ‘Labour’s commitment to repeal the Vagrancy Act is a welcome one, but I want to see this Tory government act now… We should not be threatening to fine people who have virtually nothing. No more can we accept legislation which targets rough sleepers as criminals, when they are far more likely to be victims of harassment, violence and abuse.’

Naomi Smith, a trustee for QHA, described the call to decriminalise homelessness as ‘fantastic’. She said: ‘Rough sleepers really struggle with being moved on – they often leave their stuff behind and it gets taken, when it is all their worldly belongings. It also means that homeless people become scared of the police. When you’ve got vulnerable people or women sleeping on their own, it makes things even harder. I can see the other side – I get calls from people saying there is a homeless person sleeping near their flat; I understand there needs to be somewhere to call – but criminalising them is not the answer.’

According to the letter in The Guardian, a study by the charity Crisis showed that seventy-three per cent of rough sleepers experienced some kind of criminalisation in the last year. It said: ‘People experiencing homelessness can be intensely vulnerable. Too often these measures trap people in a cycle, faced with fines they cannot pay and with a growing mistrust of those official council services they should be turning to for help.’ Under the 1824 Vagrancy Act people can face up to £1,000 in fines and a two-year criminal record. The Act makes it a crime to sleep ‘in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart of waggon, not having any visible means of subsistence’.

Other signatories to the letter included Rachael Maskell MP, Hugh Gaffney MP, Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP, Karen Lee MP and more than 240 others.

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