Councils are making it a criminal offence to be poor.
It’s considerably more complicated than that. Councils and police are often responding to perceived anti-social behaviour from rough sleepers rather than poverty or homelessness in itself, but to address it they do use powers that can, directly or indirectly, lead to a criminal penalty.
“Councils are making it a criminal offence to be poor”
The Crisis report shows that at least some councils use formal enforcement powers against rough sleepers, although it’s not entirely clear how many.
As the Canary reported, 36% of the 81 councils responding to an online survey said that they used enforcement powers of some kind to “specifically target rough sleeping”. Crisis said that “in the main” these were formal powers.
But only 6% of the 305 councils replying to a separate Freedom of Information request said that they used formal powers under the 2014 Act. Crisis told us that the FOIs didn’t cover informal enforcement actions, although there still seems like a big difference in the two results. We’ve asked for more information.
As some of these powers are used by the police, it might be that some councils are reporting enforcement measures being used in their area, rather than by council officials themselves.
Whatever the exact proportion now, other councils say they plan to use formal enforcement powers in the future.
But do they amount to making poverty a crime?
A mixture of criminal law and civil orders
At least one of the formal “enforcement measures” used by councils relies directly on criminal law. The Vagrancy Act 1824 makes rough sleeping (“wandering abroad and lodging … in the open air”) a criminal offence in itself.
That said, only one person was sent to prison for “sleeping out” between 2005 and 2015. The Crisis report refers to Vagrancy Act “arrests” being used to tackle rough sleeping and begging, rather than actual prosecutions under the law.
These orders include Injunctions to Prevents Nuisance and Annoyance (the new Anti-Social Behaviour Order); Community Protection Notices; Dispersal Orders; Public Spaces Protection Orders; and Criminal Behaviour Orders.
The circumstances in which these orders can be handed out, and who has the power to use them, vary. But the upshot in most cases is that notobeying the order is a criminaloffence.
The exception is the Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance, breaking which is dealt with as contempt of court. That’s not a criminal offence but can still lead to a fine or imprisonment.
An example of a beggar being sent to prison for breaching a Criminal Behaviour Order—which can only be given to someone convicted of a crime, at the prosecution’s request—was reported recently in Coventry.
Councils say that they offer support to rough sleepers when using formal enforcement measures
Complaints about this behaviour are partly the driving force behind these enforcement measures. But Crisis notes that councils are also motivated by “concerns for the wellbeing of those engaged in rough sleeping and anti-social street activities”.
Its report found that “where targeted at genuine anti-social behaviour, and when integrated with high quality tailored support and accom[m]odation, formal enforcement measures—often used within a multi-agency setting—can act as a catalyst to help rough sleepers move away from street lifestyles and also move into accommodation”.
If not used properly, though, the use of court orders and powers of arrest “only serves to displace rough sleepers geographically, leaving them at times marginalised and excluded from support services they rely on”.
In practice, only one fifth of rough sleepers in Crisis’s sample were actually offered support such as emergency accommodation or help with alcoholism during their most recent experience of “enforcement measures”.
This seems to be because they usually experience informal enforcement measures such as being moved on by a police officer, as opposed to a formal court order which is far more likely to be accompanied by an offer of official help.