A leading homeless charity has said a man jailed for squatting a south Belfast property over Christmas to escape the freezing weather was a “desperate man taking desperate measures”.
Robert Lewandowski (29) used keys stolen weeks earlier to move into the flat once a woman who lived there left for the holidays.
The Polish national was said to have taken nothing during a four-day stay when he used a stove, watched television and cleaned up after himself. He has been jailed for six months.
Sandra Moore, of The Welcome Organisation, sympathised with his plight while anti-racism campaigners have condemned the ruling.
“In recent years, a new class of invisible homeless people has arisen; migrants who are ineligible for state support,” said Sandra Moore.
“Many migrants become homeless or sleep rough at some point, finding themselves destitute, |unable to work and not entitled to any form of public funds, but unable for any number of different reasons to go home. While breaking the law cannot be condoned in any way you can see why desperate people take desperate actions.”
Lewandowski pleaded guilty to theft and wrongfully taking possession of the property at Tates Avenue between December 24-28.
Belfast Magistrates Court heard he had been sleeping in apartment block communal areas after losing his home and job with a recycling charity earlier this year.
He stole the keys after spotting the door to the flat lying open following a party on December 5.
A lawyer for Lewandowski, of no fixed address, said he had left the property exactly as he found it.
He told the court that when the woman and her partner returned to find him there the |defendant did not try to leave.
The solicitor said his client was apologetic, but had only gone in on Christmas Eve when temperatures were down to -10C.
“He let himself in to keep out of the cold. For four days he used the TV and stove to heat some food,” he said.
It was claimed that the woman and police were both sympathetic to Lewandowski's plight.
“He didn't take anything, and he had four days and ample opportunity to effectively clean the place out,” the solicitor added.
But District Judge Ken Nixon said his theft and wrongful entry was without justification.
Mr Nixon imposed concurrent six-month jail terms for each of the two offences and also agreed to fix bail pending a planned appeal, although Lewandowski was not released due to having no suitable address.
Flair Campbell, spokesman for the West Against Racism Network in Belfast, said: “What was ‘unjustifiable’ in this case was the jailing of this vulnerable man, not his actions in squatting in a flat for a few days during temperatures of -10C degrees.”