When poverty and homelessness become a criminal matter

The following letter from the [Simon Community](http://www.simoncommunity.org.uk/) was printed in the [Guardian](http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/oct/02/poverty-homelessness-criminal-matter-squatting?newsfeed=true) today.

The new law criminalising squatting starts to bite (First squatter jailed under new law, 27 September), and what a chilling headline that is – accepting as inevitable that this is just the first. We see a young man, an apprentice bricklayer, imprisoned for three months, and his two housemates awaiting sentence. It seems likely that he will lose his apprenticeship and be discharged from prison – homeless and with a criminal record.

There are almost a million empty properties in the country, while there are countless homeless or appallingly badly housed people. Housebuilding is falling far short of meeting demand. Many property owners see their houses simply as financial assets rather than homes for people to live in, and so are content to keep them empty while their investment grows in value. This is immoral.

It is difficult to grasp the thinking behind the fierce application of this iniquitous law. Clearly it can only swell both the numbers of people experiencing homelessness and the population of our already overcrowded prisons. In addition, the consequences of handing out criminal records to people whose behaviour up until this month has been completely outside the criminal law, will blight lives and destroy the reputations of potentially thousands of ordinary people. Despite attempts to demonise those who take empty houses back into use, the truth is that the majority of squatters are responsible people who, in a time of real housing crisis, squat as a last ditch attempt to prevent homelessness.

The Simon Community has been living and working with poor and homeless people since 1963, and we deplore this strategy. We call for a more humane and effective approach to social policy. It is deeply saddening and indeed shameful that this coalition government, faced with a problem like this, cannot do better than effectively to criminalise poverty and homelessness. This was not in either party’s manifesto. No one voted for it. Consultation prior to the change in the law produced overwhelming opposition to the measure. Crucially, this approach does not reflect the views of the vast majority of people in this country who are decent and compassionate and who when presented with people in need would not consider imprisonment to be the answer.

**Bob Baker
Director, The Simon Community**

*Image by Tomas Castelazo, CC-BY-SA*