New homelessness bill should not be more punitive than 19th-century one

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The writer is chief executive of the charity Crisis

Passed in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, the UK’s 1824 Vagrancy Act was introduced as a direct response to growing levels of street homelessness, mostly among injured soldiers following the Battle of Waterloo. 

Based on making rough sleeping a criminal offence, the law has been controversial for almost its entire existence. Abolitionist William Wilberforce opposed it, while in the 1930s Winston Churchill co-signed a bill seeking its amendment. Scotland repealed the act in the 1980s.

Crisis has campaigned against the draconian measures set out in the act for decades. But while the government finally pledged to repeal it in England and Wales last year, there was no commencement date set so the act remained in force on the understanding that enforcement would continue until new measures were brought forward to replace it. Unfortunately, as we saw following the King’s Speech last month, the proposed measures are even more punitive.

The new plans, contained in the criminal justice bill, give police powers to prosecute people experiencing street homelessness under the guise of addressing the problem of “nuisance rough sleeping” in England and Wales. 

And they go even further than the Vagrancy Act, with the draft legislation stating that grounds for prosecution can be applied to anyone who is sleeping rough, or “appearing” as though they are or intending to do so in future and who could cause or are “likely to cause” a “nuisance”. Punishment, if convicted, includes a month’s imprisonment and/or fines of up to £2,500. 

Under the bill, sleeping in doorways or less visible places can constitute nuisance behaviour. But people sleeping rough, particularly women, often choose hidden spots because of the risk of violence and overall danger. Definitions of nuisance behaviour also include criteria that are subjective, such as “excessive smells” and the use of “insulting” words. 

It’s vital that these measures do not become law. At Crisis we see the human cost of rough sleeping every day. In the most recent Office for National Statistics report, the average age of death for a homeless person was 45 years for men and 43 years for women.

Those sleeping rough often experience violence, abuse and stigma. Enshrining such judgment in law will only further prevent these people from seeking help, forcing them into destitution and exploitation.

Homelessness strips people of their dignity and diminishes their agency. It is often traumatic and painful. This bill represents further punishment.

No one sleeps on the street because they want to, and homelessness is not “a lifestyle choice”, as Suella Braverman called it when home secretary. People become homeless because there are not enough homes, rents are soaring and the cost of living crisis has eaten away at their incomes. People become homeless because of failed policy.

The UK government does not need to do this. We welcomed its commitment to repeal the Vagrancy Act, not just because it would mean ending the criminalisation of rough sleeping, but because of what it represented.

Consigning the act to history could have formed the first steps in moving towards a society where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. By building more truly affordable homes, scaling up the Housing First model of access to supported permanent housing and providing specialist support services we can still do that.

If it is not repealed, the Vagrancy Act with its draconian measures will reach its 200th anniversary next year. Yet these new plans are even harsher than the mechanisms they would replace. Being homeless should not be a crime. Society must change. It’s time to leave the 19th century behind.

Due to an editing error, this article has been amended since original publication to correct a reference to the timing of the 19th-century Vagrancy Act

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