Paul Kershaw
Housing: homeless person, photo Paul Mattsson

Housing: homeless person, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

A 21 year old homeless man who had moved to London from Plymouth looking for work has become the first person to be jailed under new legislation that makes ‘squatting a residential building’ a criminal offence.

Ironically the jailed man, Alex Haigh, had previously worked as an apprentice bricklayer.

The homeless charity, Crisis, estimates that 40% of homeless people have squatted at some time and believe that the new law will result in a further increase in rough sleeping.

Already, before the new law, rough sleeping in London has risen by a massive 43% in 2011/2012 compared to the previous 12 months – part of a desperate housing crisis that reflects the lack of affordable housing, increased unemployment and job insecurity.

This is being worsened by vicious changes to benefits which hit low-paid workers as well as the unemployed and sick.

Housing crisis

Recently published research undertaken last autumn (by Ipsos Mori), before the worst of the changes, showed that a third of benefit claimants in London private rented accommodation had tried to negotiate a lower rent but only 31% of them succeeded.

They also reported that nearly four in ten landlords in Brent, Westminster and Hackney had already “taken some action (eviction, termination or non-renewal of a tenancy) because of the new measures”.

This is evidence of social cleansing in high rent areas of London showing the importance of Youth Fight for Jobs’ ‘Forced out’ campaign.

Rather than tackle the roots of the housing crisis, the lowest peacetime rate of house building since World War One for instance, the Con-Dems criminalise the homeless.

Hugh Haigh, Alex’s father, was upset at the severity of the sentence given to his son. “They have made an example of him.

To put him in that prison environment, I don’t understand it. If he broke the law, he should be dealt with, but it is like putting someone who has not paid their taxes into Dartmoor prison.” Certainly no bankers, at the root of this crisis, have been jailed.

Ill-informed debate

The press has given prominence to cases where a homeowner who ‘goes on holiday, and returns to find his home squatted.’ People will be sympathetic in such cases but they are extremely rare.

When the legislation was being rammed through parliament by Grant Shapps, now Conservative Party chairman, 160 leading legal figures wrote an open letter saying the new law change was not needed and accused ministers of fostering ‘ill-informed debate’ misrepresenting the powers already available.

There are 930,000 empty homes according to the Empty Homes Agency. If these were let at affordable rents and if the banks were nationalised and directed to support a massive programme of house building, bricklayers like Alex Haigh would have work and the need to squat would disappear.