The Vagrancy Act 1824 makes it an offence to sleep rough or beg
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Homeless people were arrested more than 50 times in a year for sleeping rough or begging in Northern Ireland.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland made a total of 258 arrests under the Vagrancy Act between 2014 and 2018, according to a Freedom of Information request by homelessness charity Crisis.
Generally, the number of arrests have been fairly consistent each year - there were 55 in 2014, falling to a low of 35 in 2015, rising to a peak of 63 in 2016, with 60 arrests in 2018.
The Vagrancy Act 1824 makes it an offence to sleep rough or beg. It was originally brought in to make it easier for the police to clear the streets of destitute soldiers following the Napoleonic Wars.
The Government is currently conducting a review into the Vagrancy Act, but Crisis is calling for the Act to be repealed altogether.
A survey carried out by the charity found the majority of people (71%) think arresting people for sleeping rough is a waste of police time, with half (52%) saying rough sleeping should not be considered a crime at all.
As well as this, almost three-quarters (73%) said criminalising people through the Vagrancy Act does nothing to help end their homelessness, with 76% saying the best way to end rough sleeping was to support people into a home of their own.
SDLP Homelessness spokesperson, Cllr Paul McCusker has slammed the fact that people across the North are being arrested for being homeless.
The Oldpark Councillor said: “Homeless charity, Crisis have obtained startling figures from the PSNI, revealing that 258 arrests have been made as a result of people sleeping rough or begging. These figures are nothing short of a disgrace and should any of us who want to build a fair society.”
“It must be a source of shame that people in our society are criminalised for falling on hard times. We need to treat people with dignity and respect, giving them a hand up as opposed to kicking them when they are down. This inhumane law dehumanises the most vulnerable in our society, at the very time we should be supporting them.”
The Oldpark Councillor added: “I will be writing urgently to the Communities Minister to ask her what plans she has to scrap the cruel and outdated Vagrancy Act.”
Jon Sparkes, Crisis Chief Executive, said: “It should be a source of national shame that people in our society continue to be criminalised for being homeless. This is not how we treat people, and it’s clear that the public would like to see it stopped for good.
“Of course, police and councils must be able to respond to the concerns of residents in cases of genuine anti-social activity but using a cruel and outdated law is not the answer, especially when all it does is further dehumanise people who desperately need support.
“What we need to do is treat people with dignity and respect. The Government is currently reviewing the Vagrancy Act as part of its rough sleeping strategy, but it must go further and scrap this antiquated law once and for all.”