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Is it really criminal to steal food when you’re destitute?

The highest court in Italy has ruled that a young homeless man, Roman Ostriakov, did not act unlawfully when he stole a sausage and a piece of cheese to feed himself. Instead, the court found that Ostriakov had acted out of immediate need and desperation, so his theft did not – and should not – constitute a crime.

This case stands in stark contrast against recent rulings in the UK. In a similar case last year, Louisa Sewell was fined £328.75 for stealing a four-pack of Mars bars from her local convenience store in Kidderminster.

At the magistrates hearing, Sewell’s solicitor explained that her client had recently had her benefits sanctioned. As a result she had no money and had not eaten for days. She stole because she was hungry and desperate, the solicitor said. The chair of the magistrates responded by saying: “We do not readily accept you go into a shop to steal just for being hungry.”

These two rulings reveal conflicting views on whether stealing to provide yourself with nourishment can ever be justified. And this issue matters now more than ever, in light of evidence that a growing number of people are being forced to shoplift for basic essentials, both in the UK and across Europe.

Less crime, more theft

Overall levels of crime have steadily declined in Britain in recent years, but shoplifting has been rising. There were 333,671 shoplifting offences recorded across England and Wales in 2015, a 19% increase over the last ten years.

Over the same period – and particularly since 2010 – successive governments have made it more difficult to claim benefits, and toughened up sanctions for those who don’t comply. Now, claimants can be sanctioned for up to three years if they fail to comply with certain demands, such as applying for particular jobs, attending appointments with job centre advisers and participating in programmes designed to help them transition from “welfare” into “work”.

The increase in benefit sanctions – combined with growing problems such as debt, benefit delays, low pay and insecure employment – means that more people simply cannot afford to buy the essentials they need to eat, stay warm and dry and keep clean. According to recent research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, more than 1.25m people found themselves in this situation at some point during 2015 – including 312,000 children.

Get real

People who rely on benefits must also contend with suggestions from politicians and the press that individuals are to blame for their own predicament – or worse, that relying on benefits can be a “lifestyle choice”. This punitive rhetoric is reinforced and regurgitated in popular media. Shows such as Benefits Street, Skint and On Benefits and Proud promise to show what it’s really like to live on benefits. But in fact, so-called “poverty porn” presents a highly sensationalised and edited version of this “reality”.

This is part of the reason why it’s so important to draw attention to the everyday experiences of poverty and destitution – and the hard choices that they so often entail. For my own research, I have been following a small group of claimants since 2010, as they live with and respond to changes to the benefits system.

One participant in this study, Adrian, is a young jobseeker who has struggled, without success, to find work. During the five years that I have followed his progress, he has repeatedly been subject to benefit sanctions; sometimes for failing to turn up for appointments, but often due to misunderstandings between him and his job centre adviser, or confusion regarding the exact nature of a work-related demand.

During one lengthy sanction, Adrian described going into town on a daily basis to steal food, in order to survive. He was eventually caught and prosecuted for the theft of a sandwich:

They got the sandwich back and put it on the rack in front of me and the police officer, and I’m still getting charged for it, and I was starving … If they’d seen the situation I was in at that point in time, then maybe they wouldn’t have given me that fine.

Adrian could not afford to pay his fine, and due to the prosecution and ongoing issues linked to the sanction, he eventually lost his local authority home and became homeless. Later, he moved into a homeless hostel where he also volunteered in the kitchen in return for free meals.

He described trying to survive on just one or one and a half meals a day, and how this made him physically gaunt and unwell. Of course, this only made his efforts to seek work more difficult, with Adrian describing unsuccessful interviews where he felt that prospective employers were put off by his appearance, assuming it meant that he was a problematic drug user.

Britain’s benefit sanctions regime is leaving tens of thousands of individuals without income, who must then find ways to cope. For those who do not have friends and family to turn to, and who are not informed about or eligible for hardship payments, the options can feel incredibly limited. As Adrian put it:

If you’ve got no one to turn to what are you going to do, ‘cause there’s only crime you can go into, either that or I don’t know, starve.

When individuals such as Ostriakov, Sewell and Adrian feel forced to turn to petty crime in order to feed themselves, people must question – as Italy has done – whether prosecution, fines and even imprisonment are ever the answer.

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