‘The police harassed me almost every day’: Woman tells of terrifying torment of sleeping rough

A former rough sleeper speaks to Maya Oppenheim as leading housing charities raise fears that measures criminalising homelessness in the Criminal Justice Bill could hit women hardest

Tuesday 05 March 2024 17:44 GMT
The new legislation, which is expected to become law before the general election, includes vague ill-defined measures that mean sleeping in doorways or hidden spots could be defined as nuisance behaviour and therefore criminalised
The new legislation, which is expected to become law before the general election, includes vague ill-defined measures that mean sleeping in doorways or hidden spots could be defined as nuisance behaviour and therefore criminalised (Getty)

Alice* was homeless on and off from the age of 16 until her forties. From the two months she spent sleeping in a derelict building to the five months spent sheltering in a tent, the now 54-year-old deliberately sought out hidden spots to remain safe when she was sleeping rough.

Of course, she is not alone; this is something many women on the streets do to protect themselves from sexual violence, harassment and other dangers. However, women sleeping rough could soon find themselves criminalised for simply trying to stay safe – with leading housing charities telling The Independent they fear measures criminalising homelessness in the Criminal Justice Bill could hit women hardest.

The new legislation, expected to become law before the general election, includes vague ill-defined measures that mean sleeping in doorways or hidden spots could be defined as nuisance behaviour and therefore criminalised.

Draft legislation seeks to criminalise “nuisance rough sleeping”, stating this includes anyone who has slept rough, is “intending to sleep rough”, or “gives the appearance” of sleeping rough and causes a nuisance while doing so.

The definition of so-called “nuisance” even includes “excessive smells”. Offenders can be hit with a month in prison or fines of up to £2,500 if convicted.

“Fines of £2,500 are a joke because if you are on the streets, you don’t have £2,500 to your name,” Alice tells The Independent. “So that is just increasing the pressure on a person.”

The Criminal Justice Bill is stigmatising and scapegoats people for their misfortune.

Alice, former homeless person

Discussing her time spent sleeping rough in Cambridgeshire, she recalled how her life spiralled out of control when her violent father threw her out of the house at the age of 16.

“My father’s violence was just something I always dealt with,” she adds. “But when I was an adult and he tried to strangle me for the second time in my life, I said enough. That’s when everything went wrong – when I tried to stand up for myself.”

Alice, who now has no contact with anyone in her family, said sleeping rough was “terrifying”.

“After two months, the derelict building that I was sleeping in was closed up by police so I couldn’t sleep there any longer,” she adds. “So I found a different place to sleep. And again, I was banned from sleeping there eventually. The police harassed me almost every day when I was on the streets.”

In her view, the harassment was driven by a combination of misogyny and classism. She “stuck out like a sore thumb” due to sleeping rough in a rural area and was banned from her local gym and cafes due to being homeless, she explained. While sleeping rough, she encountered predatory men – something she described as both “frightening” and “surreal”.

“I trained as a lawyer and I worked at a public limited company and was a trustee of a national charity,” she adds. “I have been let down by services so badly that I wasn’t able to maintain my life.”

Alice, who has been housed for a decade, argued the Criminal Justice Bill is a “Dickensian” piece of legislation.

“It’s a disgrace,” she argued. “If the government thinks the way to end homelessness is to outlaw it, then they are not facing the issue of homelessness. To say, ‘you look homeless, so I’m going to arrest you’ – that is leaving the police with an untold amount of power to just arrest anybody that they like.”

She argued the legislation would force women and girls to remain in situations of domestic abuse due to the fear of being criminalised for sleeping rough.

“By criminalising rough sleeping, the government are trying to make a problem they don’t want to face disappear,” she added. “It won’t. By criminalising rough sleepers, the government are making it more difficult to end homelessness. It is more difficult to access employment with a criminal record, so this position only exacerbates the problem. The Criminal Justice Bill is stigmatising and scapegoating people for their misfortune.”

Her comments come as new national government figures show a 22 per cent increase in women sleeping rough between 2022 and 2023 – rising from 464 to 568. Women were estimated to make up 15 per cent of those sleeping rough.

Housing charities say these figures fail to capture the true scale of the problem – underestimating the numbers of rough sleepers. The government admits the “patterns” of women sleeping rough are “more hidden”, so may not be properly represented by the new data, as well as stating it is difficult to accurately put a figure on those sleeping rough due to its “hidden nature”.

“We know that women are already at disproportionate risk of violence, harassment and sexual abuse when sleeping rough,” Francesca Albanese, of homelessness charity Crisis, said. “These cruel and counterproductive proposals will put them in even greater danger.”

Ms Albanese called for ministers to urgently take the measures out of the legislation – arguing the best way to safeguard women from sleeping on the streets is to boost funding for frontline support services and build more “desperately” needed social housing.

“Women who seek a small amount of safety via sleeping in a doorway are set to be threatened with fines and prison for causing a ‘nuisance’,” she added. “This approach will push them into more dangerous situations – further away from support, and with less trust in the authorities.”

The Criminal Justice Bill has been branded as “the Vagrancy Act 2.0 on steroids” by senior Lib Dem MP Layla Moran – in reference to a fiercely criticised 200-year-old piece of legislation that dates back to 1824.

While parliament voted to repeal the Vagrancy Act in February 2022, this has not yet come into force, and the advent of the Criminal Justice Bill signifies a U-turn from the government given the draconian measures included in the legislation.

Sophie Boobis, of Homeless Link, also raised concerns about the disproportionate impact the legislation could have on women facing homelessness.

“We know that for safety, women are more likely to sleep in doorways, stairwells or other hidden spaces,” she said. “The broad definition of ‘nuisance’ means that these locations may be a particular target through the proposed new powers forcing already vulnerable women into more dangerous situations.”

Ms Boobis warned those women who are sleeping rough are often enduring “extremely poor mental health” – adding that if the legislation fails to deliver the housing and healthcare support they need, it “risks penalising people for the trauma of being homeless”.

A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities said: “We are determined to end rough sleeping and prevent people from ending up on the streets in the first place, and we are now spending an unprecedented £2.4bn to make this happen.

“We recognise women sleeping rough can be less visible and need specific support, which is why we are investing £547m over three years through the rough sleeping initiative so that councils can deliver the tailored support needed locally.”

But Alicia Walker, of Centrepoint, a youth homelessness charity, firmly disagreed, branding the Criminal Justice Bill a “wrong-headed legislation that will criminalise vulnerable people who need support”.

Ms Walker dismissed the legislation as “bad lawmaking” which “does nothing” to eradicate the problem of homelessness, adding that the legislation will fail to enable the government to fulfil its promise to end rough sleeping and “could even make things worse”.

Data from Centrepoint found one in nine young people are either already homeless or at risk of becoming so as a result of domestic abuse.

*Name changed to protect identity

For help or support contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, which is open 24/7, 365 days a year, on 0808 2000 247, or go to its website at nationaldahelpline.org.uk

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