Homelessness charity hits out at new anti-squatting law
LEGISLATION to get tough on squatters could criminalise some of Cheltenham's most vulnerable people.
That is the fear of Cheltenham Open Door, a charity which works to support the town's homeless community.
Squatters could face up to six months in prison after it became a criminal offence in England and Wales last week.
Ministers said the move would shut the door on squatters and help to protect hard-working homeowners.
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But campaigners warned criminalising squatting in residential buildings would lead to an increase in homeless people sleeping rough.
Sara Reader, who works with homeless people through the Open Door Project, said: "It's a very difficult one. I have huge empathy for people whose houses get taken over and lived in by squatters.
"But on the other hand, I think people's perception about the kind of lifestyle squatters lead is wrong.
"The fact is that the vast majority of people who do the squatting are doing so out of desperation. It's not a lifestyle choice."
The introduction of the law – which means squatting will carry a maximum sentence of up to six months in jail for persistent offenders, a £5,000 fine or both – follows a consultation on the issue last summer.
Sara added: "I have deep concerns about this. The Government is not taking a long-term view. Do we really want to use up police resources arresting squatters?
"And if they get fined, what is the likelihood of the squatters actually being able to pay it?
"Criminalising them is not going to help anyone.
"What I think the Government should be doing instead is taking a broader view of the issue, including what leads people to squat in the first place."
The view was backed by homeless charity Crisis.
Chief executive Leslie Morphy said: "It will do nothing to address the underlying reasons why vulnerable people squat in the first place – their homelessness and a lack of affordable housing.
"Ultimately the Government needs to tackle why homeless people squat in the first place."
Justice minister Crispin Blunt said the law would put an end to squatters' rights.
He said: "For too long, squatters have had the justice system on the run and have caused homeowners untold misery in eviction, repair and clean-up costs.
"Hard-working homeowners need and deserve a justice system where their rights come first – this new offence will ensure the police and other agencies can take quick and decisive action to deal with the misery of squatting."