A HOMELESS woman has admitted that everything she is wearing and eating has been stolen – claiming she has been driven back to crime by lack of support since being released from prison for shoplifting.

Sabina Hansard told The Press she had repeatedly taken clothing, food and drink from York shops and cafés while sleeping rough since she was freed last Friday.

The 51-year-old, who was jailed after pleading with a policeman to arrest her for shoplifting, claimed she had no choice but to steal because it could be up to six weeks before she received any benefits after coming out. “I wouldn’t survive otherwise,” she said. “I know that admitting this to The Press means I am at risk of being arrested and jailed yet again, but I have nothing to lose.

“I have been to jail perhaps 25 to 35 times. I hate it there, it is absolutely vile, and it’s costing the taxpayer almost £1,000 a week to keep me there, but sometimes when it’s freezing, it’s better than on the streets.

“But wouldn’t it be better to help me when I come out of prison, than leave me with nothing and encourage me to reoffend and return to prison?”

Asked if she accepted that what she did was morally wrong as well as illegal, she said: “Of course it is. It’s horrific, but I have no choice.”

Ms Hansard’s comments have provoked a fierce debate. The British Retail Consortium said that whatever the motivation, shoplifting was never victimless or acceptable.

Spokeswoman Sarah Cordey said: “The cash costs are met by honest customers who end up paying more and the human costs by shop staff who intervene.” She said it was the job of the welfare system to help needy people. “Claims of hardship are no justification.”

But campaigners said the benefits system needed reforming to ensure more help was available to assist criminals like Ms Hansard in going straight after leaving jail.

York parish priest Father Tim Jones, who caused global controversy in late 2009 after saying in a pre-Christmas sermon that shoplifting from large national chains was sometimes the best option for many desperate and vulnerable people, criticised delays in paying benefits to people emerging from prison.

He said: “The Minister for Justice should be asking the Minister responsible for benefits why the policy concerning benefits for prisoners on release undermines all the work being done to discourage criminals from reoffending.”

He revealed that Ms Hansard had written to him from prison after reading about his sermon, and he had been in contact with her a number of times since. He had recently been trying to help her find accommodation and obtain benefits in the hope she could start a new life away from crime, but the delays in securing benefits made this much harder.

But Ian Gillies, Tory group leader on City of York Council, said support was available to people on leaving prison and he did not accept they were being encouraged to reoffend. “Everybody has a life choice and if people choose to offend, they have to take the consequences.”

North Yorkshire Police, informed by The Press of Ms Hansard’s criminal admissions, said the force would encourage her to make full use of the support and advice provided by the criminal justice system on release from prison.

“Although individuals cannot be forced to take up the support on offer, and we understand that Ms Hansard has refused various offers of help in the past, it is always there to help people get their lives back on track,” said a spokeswoman.

“By choosing a life on the streets and committing crime rather than accepting the help that is readily available, she has put herself in a vicious circle that only she can break out of. What is certain is that her life-style choice is detrimental to both herself and the communities she chooses to stay in.”