Squatting becomes a criminal offence from tomorrow under a new law which campaigners say ignore the stark reality of rising homelessness.
Justice Minister Crispin Blunt has announced that in England and Wales squatting in residential buildings will be punishable by up to six months in prison and a maximum fine of £5,000.
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. Not any more."
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said that after a public consultation last summer the government decided to criminalise squatting in all residential buildings to "deal once and for all with the misery that squatting can cause."
But homelessness charity Crisis warned yesterday that the law will criminalise vulnerable homeless people by putting them in prison or ordering a fine they cannot pay.
Crisis chief executive Leslie Murphy said: "There was already legal provision that police and councils could and should have used to remove individuals in the rare instances of squatting in someone's home.
"And the new law also applies to empty homes - of which there are 720,000 in England alone, including many that are dilapidated and abandoned - criminalising homeless people when they are just trying to find a place off the streets.
"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 by helping not punishing them."
Brighton squatter Dee Smith said people were wrong to assume squatting was a lifestyle choice.
She added: "A huge proportion of squatters have slept rough and homelessness is on the rise.
"Many services for rough sleepers have been cut back so homeless people are running out of choices."
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