Homelessness is an emotive subject. Nothing makes me prouder than the people I was able to help to get off the streets during my time as head of the Oxford homelessness campaign On Your Doorstep. Conversely, I have been devastated by the recent deaths of homeless people in Oxford over this winter. As a recent article by the RSA’s Hannah Webster highlighted, these reflect wider longer-term national trends in England and Wales, where the number of people rough sleeping has increased by 169% since 2010 and where an increasing number of homeless people are dying on the streets.
We all appreciate the severity of this tragedy playing out all along our country and when they learn that homeless people across England are criminalised for begging – or even just for the act of sleeping rough – people tend to react first with incomprehension, and then with anger. In some aspect this is very old news; the law being used here is the Vagrancy Act of 1824. It was passed so long ago that one of its first opponents was William Wilberforce, who campaigned to abolish the slave trade. It is a law so archaic that one would have hoped it would have fallen into disuse long ago.
The BBC last year spoke to a police officer about the way in which the Vagrancy Act is used to bring beggars before the courts, which will then typically impose a fine. “I admit there’s a level of irony in that they’re going to have to go and beg to pay the fine,” the officer remarked. Of course, it was not the officer’s place to go further, but such a situation exceeds mere irony; it makes no sense at all and is quite simply, an injustice.
Others think so too. There has been some recent criticism of the law in the national press, and Oxford West and Abingdon MP Layla Moran has introduced a private member’s bill to Parliament to repeal the Vagrancy Act. The law has already been repealed in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but, disappointingly, Moran’s efforts have thus far been every bit an uphill battle.
But we are perhaps the closest we have ever been – in all of the almost two centuries of the Vagrancy Act being on the statute books – of getting the act repealed. And yet I fear that Moran’s bill may fail to get the support it needs to make its arduous journey through the House of Commons and that the press attention and the current momentum could falter. This would be a tragic misstep.
Many of the people who have been sleeping rough that I have come across, fear of the authorities and have a sense that they are almost of being hunted for having nowhere to sleep but the streets and for having no choice but to ask passers-by for spare change. Short of being arrested and charged, a common experience among rough sleepers is of being ‘moved on’ by police with the implicit or explicit threat of arrest. This forces people who need help into hiding, and we saw its appalling logical conclusion when the leader of Windsor council asked police to use their powers under the Vagrancy Act to cleanse the streets of rough sleepers prior to the royal wedding.
It tells us something concerning about a society when there are people sleeping rough and begging on the streets. It tells us something even more troubling when we see that society tackle this problem by handing out fines and criminalising homelessness. Repealing the Vagrancy Act 1824 will do little to solve Britain’s growing homelessness crisis. But it could force us to stop dealing with rough sleeping as a criminal issue and perhaps encourage us to provide help for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.