Whilst being homeless is not a criminal offence in the UK, associated activities to homelessness, like begging or public drinking, are. The Law slyly targets homelessness-associated activities, rather than their state, to prosecute them. Out of these laws applied, most infamous is the old Vagrancy Act, but in recent years more legislation against this community has come into effect, further marginalising them.
THE VAGRANCY ACT
The Vagrancy Act of 1824 was created shortly after the Napoleonic Wars, when returning soldiers, wounded from battle, were left to live on the streets and labelled ‘vagabonds’. Despite serving for ‘King and Country’, these soldiers were simply cast aside and left to their own devices. The Act in question criminalises homelessness-related activities like begging, public drinking, rough sleeping and anti-social behaviour. The part of criminalising rough sleeping was mainly aimed at groups of travelling Scots and Irish however, who could see persecution from sleeping rough in tents, private property or mode of transport, like a cart. Despite being 197 years old, this Act is still applied to the homeless community today for any of these ‘undesired’ activities.
In terms of its usage, local authorities will often cite further laws or injunctions in order to put forward a formal notice of action. The Act’s use has overall decreased since its enactment, but since 2006, a 70% increase in use has been seen. In an interview with the charity Crisis, Karl from Liverpool discussed what the Act has meant for him and his treatment by police officials: ‘you felt like a criminal… I tried my best to stay out of sight’. For many on the streets, their mere existence means they become a criminal and can be approach by an officer at any time, thus causing many to stay in their own communities, worsening the problem. Decreased funding for welfare has meant access to them has become much harder. The lack of social support means police officers are more likely to use the law against these individuals, which does not look to solve the problem, only move it somewhere else. A Metropolitan Police whistle-blower was quoted saying: ‘Our duties are being stretched beyond our capabilities to include non-criminal matters regarding mental health and social services because cuts have debilitated those sectors too’. The Act not only exposes the weaknesses in our system, but also the lack of modernisation and empathy needed to combat this crisis. As of 2019, the government had promised to look into rescinding the Act, but former Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has been accused of delaying this now for two years.
EXPANSION OF THE LAW
In recent years, more legislation has been enacted that further looks to marginalise the community and complement the Vagrancy Act. The 2014 Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act saw the introduction of Public Space Protection Orders (PSPO), a piece of legislation that ‘allows for sweeping powers to criminalise behaviour that is not ‘normally’ criminal’. Certain areas of a city, like a town centre, can now have this law applied to it and enforced through fines and arrests.
This can often mean physical access to services becomes impossible without committing an offence by breaching an area ban. According to government advice, PSPOs shouldn’t be used to criminalise rough sleeping or homelessness. However, a freedom of information request saw 3 local authorities doing just that and a 2019 Guardian report showed a further 60 were using it against begging, setting up tents and loitering. Moreover, further guidance suggested using ‘appropriate powers’ and ‘proportionate response’, but some local authorities were applying fines of £100-£1000 to these individuals. The human rights charity Liberty have labelled the Orders as: ‘absurd, counterproductive, and downright cruel’. The Act clearly looks to address the problem ‘aesthetically’, offering an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach through PSPOs.
In the most recent development, the current government is looking to pass the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, infamously known for its ban on ‘noisy’ protests. Yet, the Bill also seeks to criminalise those of traveller lifestyles with trespassing offences. These very offences can also easily be applied to homeless individuals who sleep in or near their cars, making them even more vulnerable to prosecution. It seems that whilst a modern and welfare-driven approach is desperately needed, expanding legal powers against these individuals has become the priority since 2010, with no desire to address the root cause.
The expanding criminalisation of homelessness is clearly hindering tackling this social crisis. A well funded and planned social programme is the only way to tackle this issue. Criminalisation does nothing to lift these individuals from the street and does more to push them out of society and our care. We must look to eradicate homelessness in its entirety, prioritising its causes and supporting them, not criminalising them.
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