Pressure is growing to repeal a law that "criminalises homelessness" after it emerged that 45 people had been convicted in Northern Ireland's courts under the Vagrancy Act since 2015.
Originally brought in to make it easier for police to remove destitute soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars from the streets, the Vagrancy Act 1824 makes it an offence to sleep rough or beg.
According to figures released by Justice Minister Naomi Long, 83 prosecutions have been made under the Act in Northern Ireland since 2015, with 45 resulting in a conviction.
In 2019 there were 17 prosecutions and six convictions, compared with 10 prosecutions and six convictions the previous year.
The highest number of such cases came in 2015, when 26 prosecutions were brought, resulting in 16 convictions.
Tony McQuillan, director of the charity Shelter NI, said every person prosecuted as a vagrant because they were homeless was "one person too many".
"This Act continues to criminalise homeless people and does nothing to help resolve and tackle the root causes of homelessness," he added.
"It may also prevent someone from accessing outreach services that support homeless people to move away from the streets.
"We believe there is a need to repeal the act to eliminate the criminalisation of homelessness."
He called on Stormont finances to be ring-fenced to fund a rapid increase in housing supply and housing-related support.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said Mrs Long was aware that cases had been dealt with under the Vagrancy Act.
"Recognising the cross-cutting nature of the issues involved, she has asked officials to review the use of this legislation, taking account of developments in neighbouring jurisdictions, and to advise her of their findings in the coming months," the spokesperson added.
Jim Dennison, chief executive of the Simon Community NI, said that while his organisation recognised there would always be those beg as a trade, it was "imperative" that authorities understood motives so people in genuine need were not punished.
"For several years, our charity has advocated for new ways of thinking in response to rising homeless figures and an ever-increasing number of complex cases," he added.
"The Simon Community welcomes any progress within the Department of Justice to review the Vagrancy Act and play a role in tackling homelessness."
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said it was "frankly barbaric" that people who were homeless and in need were being criminalised, and stressed that the legislation should have been repealed years ago.
"Even before the punishing impact of the pandemic, welfare reform had thrust more and more people into financial peril," Mr Carroll added.
"Those people need help and deserve basic respect but instead are being met with the letter of the law, which could have a long-term impact on their lives.
"Criminalising those in need will never get to the root of homelessness or begging.
"We need to see urgent action from the Executive to build public housing and to scrap welfare reform in favour of a proper social security system, where assistance is available for those who need it."
Belfast's Deputy Lord Mayor Paul McCusker, who works with the homeless, added: "This outdated Act needs scrapped completely and I would urge the department to do so swiftly. There are ways of dealing with the homeless through supporting them. This is not one of them."