Amid government fears of ‘mass homelessness’ is criminalising squatting appropriate?

Yesterday’s headline in the Observer announces that Eric Pickles has warned David Cameron that welfare reform will make 40,000 more families homeless. Contrary to the government’s claims that a limit on benefit payments will have little impact on homelessness and child poverty, the leaked letter confirms that the caps will disproportionately affect families and reveals fears of ‘mass homelessness’:

■ 40,000 families will be made homeless by the welfare reforms, putting further strain on services already “seeing increased pressures”.

■ An estimated £270m saving from the benefits cap will be wiped out by the need to divert resources to help the newly homeless and is likely to “generate a net cost”.

■ Half of the 56,000 affordable homes the government expects to be constructed by 2015 will not be built because developers will realise they will not be able to recoup even 80% of market rates from tenants.

Alongside last week’s warning by leading bankers that Britain is facing a ‘tsunami’ of house repossessions as soon as interest rates begin to rise, the future is looking particularly bleak in terms of housing.

The scale of these issues is enormous and we do not suggest that squatting can somehow resolve these problems, but the idea of criminalising the people trying to cope with these top-down changes in access to housing, is grossly unfair and will undoubtedly further exacerbate problems of homelessness.

Squatting is a response to a lack of housing, and many of the people experiencing that lack are already vulnerable. Eric Pickles’ comments suggest that this bracket of people will expand significantly as the government’s changes to social welfare take effect. If squatting were to be made illegal alongside this increase in homelessness* the government would effectively be criminalising many homeless people at the same time as making them homeless. This approach would be short-sighted and cruel: the government needs to address the causes of the current housing crisis instead of attacking those who are trying to cope with it.

*figures issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government already reveal a 10% increase in homelessness on last year.