Outreach workers need power to assist rough sleepers refusing help, MP says

Lewis McKenzie, PA Political Reporter
·3-min read

Outreach workers must be given powers to step in and assist rough sleepers who refuse help, ministers have been told.

The call was made as the case of a woman living in an underpass with maggots growing from her leg was highlighted by Conservative MP Nickie Aiken.

It comes after Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick suggested in February that the Vagrancy Act could be scrapped and updated with more modern legislation.

Ms Aiken, the MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, has long campaigned for greater support for rough sleepers and has called for the Act to be repealed.

She told the PA news agency: “I was absolutely delighted to hear the Secretary of State confirm his same view that it’s (the Act’s) not fit for purpose and needs to be consigned to the history books.

“It’s the first time I think that a government minister has actually said that publicly. So I think it’s a huge move forward definitely.”

The MP, who is also a Westminster City councillor, explained that the issue of addiction and mental health must be addressed in order to tackle the issue of rough sleeping.

Ms Aiken continued: “Let me give you an example, a real-life example. There was a woman ‘living’, sleeping rough, in a Charing Cross underpass and she had maggots growing out of her leg.

“And she was deemed to have the mental capacity to make the decision that she wanted to remain on the street, even though outreach workers were talking to her daily and offering her a bed and help and a path off the streets, but she refused that.

“Now, as far as I’m concerned, if you’ve got maggots growing out of your leg and you are so ill that you need medical attention, both physical and mental, I personally do not believe you have the mental capacity to make that decision and for the preservation of your life, others have to make that decision for you.”

The Cities of London and Westminster MP insisted that taking a more assertive approach towards helping rough sleepers would help ensure people get treatment, not put them in police cells.

She said: “It’s about assertive outreach, that outreach workers and professionals have the ability to say to somebody on the street, ‘actually, you don’t have the mental capacity to make the decision to remain on the street, you need to come off’.

“And there needs to be legislation that gives powers to professionals. And you can put relevant safeguards in regarding having at least two professionals undertake a report to somebody.

“It might be that in acute cases, you have to go to a magistrates’ court to get an order. But that’s for preservation of life, it’s not to put somebody in a police cell, it’s about putting somebody into treatment.”

The chief executive of St Mungo’s, Steve Douglas, insisted that criminalising people who sleep rough is “not the answer”.

He told PA: “Rough sleeping is a social issue, often caused by complex circumstances, and should be addressed through swift access to the right housing and support to meet each individual’s needs, and not through criminalisation.

“In 2018, we supported Crisis’ campaign ‘Scrap the Act’ and stand by our belief that the Vagrancy Act should be repealed in full due to its counter-productive nature and inability to tackle rough sleeping effectively.

“Criminalising people who sleep rough is not the answer, it leads to stigmatisation, loss of trust and therefore loss of engagement”.

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said that criminalising people only pushes people further away from support.

“No one should be criminalised for being homeless. The Secretary of State was absolutely right in February to say the Vagrancy Act should be repealed,” he said.

“It does nothing to address the issue of rough sleeping, only pushing people further away from support.

“We have detailed proposals with cross-party support to help the UK Government scrap this appalling Act and take an important step in building a more compassionate society.”