William Wilberforce once said, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know”. Wilberforce vehemently opposed the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which criminalises the very existence of homeless people by making it an offence to sleep rough or beg.
It is striking that a law condemned as inhumane in the nineteenth century is still in force today. The Act was first introduced to deal with the increasing number of homeless soldiers following the end of the Napoleonic wars. Its archaic language betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the challenges faced by homeless people: a law which brandishes vulnerable and desperate people as “idle rogues” is grotesquely out of place in modern society.
Wilberforce famously pointed out that by characterising homeless people as such, society ignores the multitude of reasons someone may find themselves on the streets. And this still rings true today. With poverty, addiction, and mental health issues on the rise, broad brush criminalisation only worsens the plight of homeless people through the stigmatisation of their situation.
In 2015 alone, there were more than 3,000 prosecutions under the Vagrancy Act, which often resulted in fines up to a thousand pounds. Its aims are completely contradictory: rough sleepers are forced to beg more to pay fines incurred from being on the streets. This creates a vicious cycle, in which homeless people are unjustly trapped. Prosecution under the Act can lead to a criminal record lasting up to two years, meaning that people who are already struggling to find secure accommodation and employment will have further obstacles in their way.
The Act promotes and legitimises this attitude of dehumanisation towards homeless people. Before the wedding of Duke and Duchess of Sussex last year, the leader of the Windsor and Maidenhead Council encouraged police to use the act in order to “clear the area” of rough sleepers so that the town was prepared for the considerable tourist interest to follow.
The impact of this Dickensian law is also felt sharply on the streets of Oxford. In 2013, 38 homeless people were arrested under the Act. If you speak to anyone on the streets in our city, they will most likely have a story about the efforts they have to go to avoid the police. When we are wrapped up warm in bed, in our exorbitantly wealthy colleges, vulnerable people have to engage in a game of cat-and-mouse to avoid arrest for merely trying to create some semblance of a home on the cold streets.
“An Act which overlooks the underlying causes of homelessness cannot ‘support’ the people it victimises.”
It is glaringly obvious that punishment is not the answer. For almost 200 years, the Act has failed homeless people; they need our support, not persecution. We must follow the example of Scotland and Northern Ireland and repeal this antiquated law. As students in a city with one of the worst homelessness rates, we need to make this a priority. Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, has tirelessly campaigned for repeal, yet the government is still reluctant to give the debate floor time while Brexit dominates the Parliamentary agenda.
The plight of homeless people has not ceased because of Brexit, and neither should the debate surrounding the Vagrancy Act. Last year, the Home Office confirmed that it has no intention to repeal the Act as it remains a mechanism by which rough sleepers can be “supported off the streets”.
It is ludicrous to suggest homeless people benefit from sanctions, such as imprisonment. An Act which overlooks the underlying causes of homelessness cannot “support” the people it victimises. If the Act aims to reduce homelessness then it is has failed: homelessness — and the number of people dying on the streets — continues to rise relentlessly.
There is a moral imperative to repeal of the Vagrancy Act. We should not be the people who ‘walk by on the other side’, but play our part in finding a solution to the crisis on our streets.
Illustration: Lucy King