Criminalising the Homeless

Many of us have long argued that housing is likely to be at the centre of the crisis in the next few years. This is an understatement: the crisis in housing is already here, and has been burgeoning over the last decade. SQUASH have today released their report into the true costs of enacting Clause 136 of LASPO, designed to criminalise squatting in ‘residential’ properties: depending on the population of squatters, these costs can mount to between £316 to £790 million over five years. (Guardian story.) This from a clause tacked on (in evident haste) to a bill nominally designed to save money by cutting legal aid.

Some quick thoughts:

Populist Policy Making

If there’s anything that’s clear from reading the government’s hurried consultation and assessment, it’s this: this clause is a consequence of a compulsion to satisfy an anti-squatting campaign, largely carried out by the Daily Mail and Evening Standard, and based on any number of outright lies about how property law and adverse possession work. The consultation bears all the hallmarks of back-of-the-envelope calculations designed to rubberstamp the preferred governmental policy. So much for ‘evidence-led’ policy, then. You don’t have to be an anarchist to find this sort of craven, scantily costed and ill thought-through policy a prime example of degenerate government. In fact, even if you adopt the perspective of pro-austerity politicians, such disproportionate spending to combat what Stuart Hodkinson (one of the academic endorsees of the report) calls an ‘innocuous problem’ is wildly off-message.

Mythbusting

Properly reading the government’s consultation papers, something odd comes to light: it’s not just squatters and homelessness charities who have opposed criminalisation, but also bodies of legal professionals and even the Metropolitan Police. An odd coalition, to be sure, but this is because of two things: however many scare stories are run by the tabloids, the law already criminalises the displacement of homeowners or intending occupiers from their homes (Section 7, Criminal Law Act 1977) and in such a case, police can act immediately. In fact, these cases almost never happen – in large part because eviction would be so rapid, and at the hands of the police. Virtually all the cases reported in the tabloids are, on closer inspection, cases of empty buy-to-rent properties and angry landlords. So the criminal law to ‘protect homeowners’, the favourite mantra of Grant Shapps and Crispin Blunt, is already in place, and this change in law does nothing to alter that – what it does do is open up to criminal prosecution the large number of homeless people seeking shelter in empty buildings, as a respite from rough sleeping.

How do you deal with a problem like homelessness?

SQUASH argues very clearly that squatting is a consequence of homelessness and housing crisis. As such, simply criminalising squatting doesn’t make it go away – certainly not unless you deal with its underlying causes. What are the possible outcomes of a criminal squatting law? Well, SQUASH rightly demonstrates that squatters are not a static population, nor do they disappear if you criminalise them. This means that, first, the housing need that drives people to squat in the first place doesn’t disappear, and second, people who were squatting as a solution to impossible house prices or to avoid sleeping rough have to either enter into the welfare system (and claim housing benefit) or sleep rough and thus expand demand for homelessness services (both voluntary and statutory). As SQUASH point out, there’s simply no accounting for these costs in the government’s report.

In a time when homelessness has risen by 14% in one year (figures which don’t account for the huge numbers of ‘hidden’ homeless, including squatters), criminalisation, and therefore mass entry into welfare, rehabilitation or incarceration is a dangerous policy. It means – especially with the Chancellor’s cuts to Local Housing Allowance – that there will be a greater increase in rough sleeping. It means that people seeking shelter from sleeping on the streets in adverse conditions will end up trying to endure them instead. In turn, this doesn’t just mean demand on homelessness services rise, but that the number of homeless who die as a result of homelessness (fearing criminalisation and unable to access services) will spike, too.

Crispin Blunt, the minister who has championed Clause 136 through its barely-scrutinised passage through the House, said on Channel 4 news recently that he had ‘no sympathy’ for those about to be displaced from squatting. Hardly a surprise, but the very real consequences of this clause – unimaginable to the cocooned MPs and Lords passing it, because of an inability to appreciate the real circumstances of homelessness – ought to be viewed directly as blood on his hands.

Sound dangerous to you? Good, go visit the SQUASH website, and stop Clause 136 passing.

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5 thoughts on “Criminalising the Homeless

  1. There is, of course, the obvious question: can we jail them all? And is imprisonment an effective deterrent, in mid-January?

    A cynic might ask: “Who profits?” but I hesitate to offer even ‘hypotheticals’ and speculation, in the face of England’s eager libel lawyers.

    So let’s ask: how will this play out? Landlords and estate managers with a portfolio of vacant properties will pay security firms to sweep out illegal occupants, forcefully and without regard for their possessions, their safety, or the dismal public spectacle.

    The police are going to get involved – and some forces show a dismaying eagerness to assist landowners with excessive force, acting like a private army in disputes which are still, under current law, a civil matter.

    But, willingly or not, the police will have to get involved now: it’s a criminal matter. There’s also a civil order issue to consider: increasing desperation among increasing numbers of homeless people and illegal occupiers means that many of these mass evictions will be disorderly. Violent, even: and even the best of the private-sector security firms aren’t very good at managing confrontation.

    That’s probably enough to say, for now.

  2. Interesting article. I have several experiences to share. I was homeless at 16. I slept in an old car and washed in a public toilet until I sorted myself out. I didn’t once consider breaking in someone else’s property but this was 30 years ago when the mindset was different. Then there was much more self dignity and much less of an attitude of entitlement. I’d suggest the reason there’s more of a squatting culture now is because it’s been normalised; seemingly decent intelligent people say it’s ok and so it goes on. I don’t think one has to be a Daily Mail reader to come to that conclusion. It’s a paper I loathe but I’m broadly in agreement with this legislation.

    I also worked in a hostel for young homeless people which did very good working at temporarily housing teenagers who’d fallen out with their parents. Sadly government funding via the Probation Service dried up and we had to close. Although this wasn’t under the current governemnt, I’d like to see a simultaneous effort to support homeless charities while this legislation rolls out.

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