Homelessness England London Shelter DCLG
The man awoke to his head and face covered in flames Stock picture: Getty Images

Police are appealing for witnesses after a homeless man was set on fire and had his rucksack stolen as he slept in a shopping centre.

The 51-year-old awoke in Worthing's Royal Arcade to his head and face covered in flames, before seeing a man running away with his rucksack.

The incident, at around 7am on Sunday (6 November), resulted in burns to the victim's cheek, eyelids and head, police said. He was treated by paramedics at the scene.

Detective Sergeant Simon Smith, of Sussex Police, said: "The victim tried to chase the man and described him as white, [in his] 20s and wearing a white hooded top.

"We are appealing to anyone who might have been near the Royal Arcade early on Sunday morning or saw someone running away or acting suspiciously with a red backpack. Please get in touch if you can help us with our investigation."

A 38-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of robbery in connection with the incident and was bailed while officers continue their investigation.

Rachel Blair, a senior community fundraiser at Worthing Churches Homeless Projects, which has set up the Worthing Winter Night Shelter, told The Argus: "It's terrifying – homeless people are some of the most vulnerable people in our community, although I don't think they are always seen that way.

"It's just shocking that people think that's acceptable. Just shock and despair, really. How can that even enter someone's head? It's just the epitome of kicking someone when they are down."

The number of people sleeping on the streets in England has more than doubled over the past five years, from 1,768 in 2010 to 3,569 in 2015. One study, by the charity Crisis, found the homeless were 13 times more likely to be a victim of violent crime than others.

Local Conservative councillor Paul Westover, whose ward covers Royal Arcade, said the attack in Worthing was "despicable".

"As the nights are drawing in and getting colder I would have thought it would be a common place to find individuals sleeping rough. It is very sad."

Any witnesses are asked to contact police online here, quoting serial 273 of 6 November.