21/08/2011 05:58 BST | Updated 20/10/2011 06:12 BST

Plans To Criminalise Squatting: Hurting The Homeless Or Protecting Homeowners?

Chris began squatting six years ago after the death of his grandmother. Thrown out of her home and served with an eviction notice he couldn’t read because of severe dyslexia, he found an empty flat, then a warehouse, and set up home.

His local council provided no help. Chris was told he did not fit the criteria for homelessness and was turned away. “All they did was give me a booklet which I can’t read”, he said.

Within a month he was arrested for breaking and entering, and served 12 months in prison. On release, he squatted again because he claims he received no help from the prison service.

In the last four years he’s been arrested and sent to prison three times for breaking and entering. Now, he sleeps rough, afraid to squat again in case he gets sent back to prison.

Chris is one of a significant minority of homeless people who have squatted at some point, according to research by the charity Crisis.

The charity fear that Chris’ story will become all too common under Government plans to make squatting illegal

The chief executive of Crisis, Leslie Morphy, says the plans to “end the misery of squatting” for homeowners ignore the plight of the homeless: "What about the misery facing homeless people who are so desperate for a roof over their heads that they are often forced to sleep in abandoned buildings without heat, light or water?"

But justice secretary Ken Clarke has rejected claims that vulnerable squatters have nowhere else to go, telling the BBC in July:

“The idea that people only squat as a last and desperate measure and there’s no other way of getting a roof over their head, I’m afraid I don’t altogether buy.”

The controversy comes down to whether the plans will harm the homeless, or criminalise those who, in the words of Conservative MP Mike Weatherley, squat as a “lifestyle choice”.

People like Paul Reynolds, who heads up the Squash Campaign which is rallying against the plans to criminalise squatting. A squatter himself in West London’s Grow Heathrow, he says doesn’t want to work every hour of every day, to live the way he wants to.

“Yes some squatters are middle class - people want to maintain a decent standard of living. They don't want to work every hour they've got in life to get a house in London – there’s a lot of gardeners, a lot of artists, a lot of musicians. In order to maintain that kind of dignity they've chosen to squat.”

Reynolds says squatting “projects”, social spaces like London’s Really Free School Squat, which notoriously set up camp in Guy Ritchie’s Belgravia home, have been “used by those right-wing media campaigns as an example of how squatters are just middle class trustafarians.”

The furore over squatters, he says, is a “manufactured political issue”. Instead Reynolds says it’s time to focus on ‘silent squatters’: “The middle class squatters are probably more likely to go to court, more likely to speak to the press. That’s why it's easier to write a story about them. “

He adds: “What we're saying is squatters are as a constituency of people some of the most vulnerable, 39% of all homeless people squat at some point. And a whole range of people who squat for economic reasons - in places like London.

“The majority of squatters are totally hidden. they go and they squat quietly. That's probably the majority.”

In his 20s and having squatted for five years, Reynolds says the movement is “a rich part of history”.

“Right now there’s going to be another upsurge in squatting because of the recession. When people are skint they squat. Right now there’s lots of empty buildings and a lot of skint people.”

But The Tory MP for Hove Mike Weatherley believes that for every mention of a Chris he cites a family who, when grieving for the death of their mother, had to deal with squatters.

“It’s the fact that no one’s accountable for stealing. You can take possession of a house, damage the house and cause distress to the occupants. We had one recently when a lady died and whilst the family were grieving for their mother the squatters moved in – they damaged the place. Those squatters need to be held to account. At the moment all that happens is they’re asked to leave and can just go next door. We actually had that in Hove”

Like Ken Clarke, he rejects the idea that the plans will leave vulnerable and homeless people with criminal records. He says the target is those squatters we hear about in media reports who move into people’s private property when they go on holiday and refuse to leave upon their return.

“We should always remember that squatting and homelessness are two separate things. I’ve spoken to a number of homelessness charities and they all agree that some squatters are making a lifestyle choice and some action needs to be taken.

“What we’re not doing here is talking about the person who needs a home for the night and crawls into an empty building.”

For Weatherley, squatters like Reynolds and the Really Free School are living in a dream world. “If they want to live in a world where they don’t pay any money, I’m not stopping them from doing that. But If you’re feeling hungry you don’t walk into Sainsbury’s and think, ‘that can of tuna’s been there for a while’, you don’t do that. These squatters are stealing people’s property.

“At the end of the day they can’t just take what’s not theirs. If they want to go and live an alternative lifestyle they can go and be travelers or move into legal squats or communes or whatever but the answer isn’t to help themselves.

“We must draw a distinction between homeless persons and squatters. This isn’t an attempt to make homeless people criminals. I hope there’s provision in there that that’s taken account of. But we’ve got to make sure there aren’t loopholes.”

However advocates of squatting like Reynolds are right when they say this argument is a half-truth: “This is misrepresented as being about protecting homeowners even though it's already illegal to squat in someone's home.”

But for many, Reynolds and the Squash campaign are the wrong people to defend the legal right to set up home in empty buildings.

Crisis’ head of policy Katharine Sacks-Jones says in the end, the change in the law will affect vulnerable adults like Chris more than serial squatters like Reynolds.

“Far from being a lifestyle choice, many squatters are homeless people living in horrific conditions because they have no other option. Crisis research shows that 40% of homeless people have resorted to squatting. These are often very vulnerable people squatting in derelict buildings without heat, lighting or water. Criminalising these people will do nothing to address the underlying issue causing them to squat in the first place and that is their homelessness.”