A Conservative MP and former army officer has claimed sleeping rough is “a lot more comfortable” than military exercises.
During a parliamentary debate he led on street homelessness, Adam Holloway suggested able-bodied people could "make quite a lot of money from begging on the streets of London”.
“We have to accept that some people are able to sleep rough in our cities because there are the resources to do so,” said the MP for Gravesham, Kent.
The Brexit supporter also attributed rising levels of homelessness to eastern European immigration, arguing “some migrants sleep on the streets by choice, preferring to sleep rough than to pay for accommodation”.
The MP said on a recent visit to a soup kitchen he “wandered about while shawls and brand-new trainers were handed out, and I honestly did not hear English being spoken by anyone. I heard east European languages. I heard Arabic. And I heard Italian.”
Mr Holloway told MPs he spent seven nights on the streets during the February recess for a TV documentary on rough-sleeping.
“If someone is fit and of sound mind, there are all sorts of services, although not quite 24 hours a day, that make it possible to sleep out,” he said. “I am 52 years old and I was in the army; to be honest, sleeping rough in central London is a lot more comfortable than going on exercise when I was in the army.”
He acknowledged that for “for those who are mentally ill, drug-addicted, old or personality disordered, it is a very different thing”.
But an “able-bodied person can make quite a lot of money from begging on the streets of London”, he said, adding: “Generosity by members of the public is a factor in this; generosity can be enabling and mask those in real need.”
Mr Holloway’s comments came a day after Bureau of Investigative Journalism research revealed at least 79 homeless people had died on Britain’s streets or in temporary accommodation in the past six months.
He was challenged by Labour MP Laura Smith, who said: “I do not relate to what the honourable gentleman is saying at all.
“I go and help the homeless in my community; we have great volunteers who also help them all the time... It worries me that you are not recognising some of the real, ingrained problems. I do not think that anybody would choose to sleep rough – I do not buy that.”
Mr Holloway responded: “I am not saying that even a large minority of the homeless are there because there are resources for them.
“I am trying to say... that we will get nowhere in solving the problem and getting to the people who are most needy if we just continue to talk about the homeless and feel sorry for everybody. We have to focus on the people in real need.”
He told MPs he first slept on the streets 27 years ago when he was a TV journalist making a documentary about homelessness.
He said in February this year that, in contrast to 1991, “the majority of the people I came across living on the streets were foreign nationals”.
“Let us be honest about the correlation between immigration and the rising number of street homeless,” he said. "It is no surprise to me that, in 2016-17, 1,950 rough sleepers were migrants from Romania, Poland and Lithuania.
“Obviously, homelessness is a much greater risk when people are far from home and from familial support structures. It became clear to me that some migrants sleep on the streets by choice, preferring to sleep rough than to pay for accommodation.
“It is a no-brainer that years of high immigration and of successive governments not building enough houses will have a knock-on effect for people at the bottom of society. Of course that will make rents unaffordable.”
Labour MP Melanie Onn, the shadow housing minister, said Mr Holloway’s comments about immigrants did not reflect UK-wide homelessness.
According to government figures, 16 per cent of rough sleepers across England are EU nationals from outside of the UK, and 4 per cent are from outside of the EU.
The number of people sleeping rough has risen by 169 per cent since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, research by charity Homeless Link revealed earlier this month. Beds in homeless shelters have fallen by a fifth in the same period.