England’s Vagrancy Act must be scrapped. But will its replacement be any better?
Any solutions to end homelessness must be work in collaboration with the people whom they are designed to help – not against their will
It is that time of year again. The nights are drawing in and the temperatures are dropping. And while most people are starting to look forward to the holiday season, many of the hundreds of thousands of people experiencing homelessness in the UK will be worrying about surviving a harsh winter. And for those sleeping rough in England and Wales, there remains an added threat: the fear of being arrested.
In February, following campaigning by Crisis and many other charities, the UK government officially announced its intention to repeal the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which gives police the power to arrest people simply for sleeping rough. But the government made no mention of the act in the Queen’s speech and has not committed itself to a timetable for repeal. It now seems likely that the act will remain in force throughout 2021 and into next year.
What’s more, campaigners are concerned that when repeal finally comes, the act will be replaced by something just as bad. Some fear that the government may move to strip the agency and humanity from those experiencing homelessness – essentially creating a system in which those without a home no longer have a right to bodily autonomy.
Particularly worrying were comments by Conservative MP Nickie Aiken, who has been a prominent figure in calling for the 200-year-old act to be scrapped. While leading a parliamentary debate on repealing the act in April, Aiken advocated for increased ‘assertive outreach’ by social workers and mental health professionals, whom she says should have the power to section rough sleepers who refuse support and accommodation, prompting The Daily Telegraph to run a headline that euphemistically asserted that ‘Homeless people who refuse help should be forced to accept assistance, ministers told’. Any such policy would be ripe for abuse – not least for Black people, who are four times more likely to be sectioned than people who are white.
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While it is vital that the government comes to a different conclusion, such calls are not entirely new. In 2018, homelessness charity St. Mungos, which has previously apologised for its role in helping the government to search for homeless illegal migrants to deport, also called for local authorities to carry out assertive outreach work following any repeal of the Vagrancy Act. For its part, the government has written to local authorities to remind them of their current, more limited powers to detain people against their will, although it remains to be seen whether it will go as far as Aiken has suggested.
People who choose the streets are usually ‘applying logic to a situation and choosing the better option’
It is true that mental health problems are a significant issue for people sleeping rough, but refusing accommodation is not a sign of mental illness. There are many rational reasons why someone on the streets may refuse the help offered, including because the accommodation is unsuitable. In his excellent book, ‘Rude Awakenings from Sleeping Rough’, Peter Mitchell describes the unsafe conditions he was placed in, which led him to go back out on the streets as a better option. “These are holding pens for charities to shelve their processed clients, often throwing alcoholics and addicts together in a single house to succumb to their chemical dependencies hand in hand in a freefall of enablement…This is not Happily ever After Housing. This is homelessness with a roof.”
When I reached out to him via email, Mitchell, who was nearly sectioned twice himself, called Aiken’s proposals “disturbing”.
Paul Atherton, who has been homeless for more than a decade, told me that people who choose the streets are usually “applying logic to a situation and choosing the better option… most people sleeping rough have already been in temporary accommodation and through various systems and have been let down or offered accommodation that’s been uninhabitable or in dangerous surroundings”.
There are many other reasons why rough sleepers may refuse such accommodation: it’s rarely offered to couples, for example, or to people with pets. Rough sleepers who are not from the UK may decline if they do not wish to be found, which is hardly surprising given the UK government has also decided that being on the streets can be a reason to deport someone.
In search of solutions
In the US, vagrancy acts were declared unconstitutional in 1972. But the mere repeal of these acts did not improve the homelessness situation, authorities in many cities simply replaced them with anti-begging and anti-social behaviour orders. These fulfilled the same function of enabling police forces to move people on from city centres, away from the sensitive eyes of tourists and shoppers.
As of January 2020, there were a reported 580,000 people experiencing homelessness in the US – although the real number is likely to be much higher – almost half of whom live in California alone. In the state’s most populous city, Los Angeles, street populations suffer from typhoid outbreaks caused by infestations of rats. This shows that repeal of a vagrancy act is not a magic bullet – and that we need to be extremely careful about our next move.
I recently edited a British Academy volume called ‘Representing Homelessness’, which argues that agency must be made central to attempts to combat homelessness.
Included in the volume is neuroscientific research by Lasana Harris and Nuoya Tan, which used brain scans to show which key sectors of the brain were firing or, crucially, not firing, when participants were asked to think about people affected by homelessness. They found that people who are housed often literally think about people suffering homelessness as if they are objects – meaning they are able to walk past vulnerable people without feeling compelled to offer help.
Tan and Harris call this mental process “dehumanised perception”, which they describe as “a failure to mentalise or consider another person’s thoughts, beliefs, desires, and other mental states”. Dehumanised perception has many negative outcomes. At its most extreme, it leads to violence against people sleeping rough, whose very existence seems enough to provoke anger and hostility from members of the public. More commonly, it leads people to blame those experiencing homelessness if they refuse or do not meet the conditions laid out by charities or local councils. It also encourages policymakers to make poor decisions, treating people experiencing homelessness as if they are incompetent and in need of ‘saving’. It leads, in other words, to solutions such as that proposed by Aiken and St. Mungos.
Other research in the volume outlines the strengths, abilities and talents possessed by people suffering homelessness. In their chapter, Jess and Matt Turtle, co-founders of the excellent Museum of Homelessness (MoH), warn: “If homelessness is perceived as largely a matter of incompetence in the individual, then training and employment can solve it. Perhaps it also helps charities and businesses to come together in a paternalistic space where enforcement can be justified.”
To increase empathy by providing a platform for human stories, the MoH uses ‘object stories’, in which actors put on a live performance of a story told to them by a person experiencing homelessness. These stories centre around an object donated by the anonymous storyteller, such as a tobacco pouch.
In one of these stories, ‘The Bottle’, a mother discusses her interactions with homelessness services, who threatened to separate her from her child because of her immigration status. “They say they care about the child, not you, they say they are going to look after the child. Not you…” she says. “This is what they say to you. How can you take care about the child, but not care about the mum?” Such negotiations with homelessness services are potentially traumatic, something rarely mentioned in popular representations of homelessness, including by mainstream charities.
My own research in the volume describes how early 20th-century transients in the US, more commonly known as ‘hobos’, created a street magazine, Hobo News, filled with stories, poetry, opinion pieces and legal advice. The magazine also sought to campaign against American vagrancy laws, highlighting how offenders are not guilty of any crime except poverty. “If the Archangel Michael were caught on earth today… poorly clad and without money, he would be arrested under the vagrancy laws,” wrote Henry A. White in one article from 1918.
Hobo News also ran obituaries, often of known transients but sometimes of unknown ones, as in this July 1915 memorial:
Cause of death—starvation.
‘Representing Homelessness’ demonstrates the basic truth that a person does not lose their imagination, intelligence or agency because they do not have a fixed address. Solutions to homelessness need to be in collaboration with the people whom they are designed to help, rather than against their will.
Ultimately, we need solutions that will prevent rather than manage homelessness. Attempts to make rough sleeping an individualised matter limit structural solutions, such as the need for more and better housing, as well as the problems of rising rents, unemployment and stagnant wages, and lead to the kind of coercive strategies now being advocated by Aiken.
So, yes, of course we must repeal the 1824 Vagrancy Act, but it must not simply be replaced by anti-social orders that criminalise and dehumanise those affected by homelessness. We need to change the law to ensure that all people have the right to housing in the area where they currently reside, instead of only where they have so-called ‘local connections’. We must also make help available to all, ensuring that everyone has recourse to public funds. Taking these measures would create a genuine safety net, which, despite public perceptions to the contrary, currently does not exist. And since homelessness is ultimately a question of poverty above all other factors, we must change our economy to stop people from falling into the poverty trap that creates the majority of homelessness in the first place.
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