Anti-Homeless Legislation in the UK and the Criminalisation of Rough Sleeping
Through the association of rough sleeping with anti-social behaviour and public disturbances, anti-homeless legislation has become an entrenched governmental approach to homelessness in the United Kingdom. The Vagrancy Act of 1824 established begging and sleeping rough in England and Wales as an offence which can result in fines of up to GBP 1000. The Act has, in essence, made poverty a crime and gives local councils the right to ban rough sleepers from different locations, seize their property, and charge them fines to gain back seized property.
Section 3 of the Vagrancy Act defines begging as a criminal offence and has provided grounds for 926 prosecutions and 742 convictions of begging in 2019 alone. These convictions often result in conditional discharges, fines, and occasionally even being taken into custody. While the number of convictions and prosecutions under the Vagrancy Act have declined, the Act is still frequently used informally to move rough sleepers from certain locations and disrupt their activity without formal arrests. In addition, The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 has further given local councils and public bodies the right to challenge rough sleeping and anti-social behaviour through measures such as criminal behaviour orders, dispersal powers, and civil injunctions.
It is difficult to assess the use and impact of government anti-social behaviour powers due to the lack of published statistics. While further data can be acquired through Freedom of Information requests, the quality and accuracy of such data can be inconsistent. The number of rough sleepers throughout the UK has only increased since the introduction of the first vagrancy laws and the more recent Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs), making homelessness a critical legal issue for the UK government. The number of rough sleepers within England alone has more than doubled from an estimated 1,768 recorded persons in 2010 to 4,134 in 2016. Such figures are based on street counts and intelligence gathered by local authorities and resultantly are only an estimate of the true number of rough sleepers within England. Basic demographics are acquired through the estimates of police officers, outreach workers, voluntary groups, local agencies, and other entities that have contact with rough sleepers.
In addition to laws and PSPOs, other less formal methods are also employed by law enforcement, local businesses, and security to further deter rough sleeping and homelessness within local areas. These measures can include defensive architecture to physically deter rough sleeping, noise-pollution, and diverted giving schemes to encourage locals to give money to charities instead of beggars. While these measures do not include legal actions such as arrests or fines, they are equally controversial in terms of their effectiveness and morality. In response to this controversy, the Rough Sleeping Strategy, which was presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government in August 2018, committed to review the current anti-homeless legislation and rough sleeping laws.
The review included a consideration of renewed options, including repealing, replacing, and amending the Vagrancy Act. Included in the strategy were new initiatives for both prevention and intervention, to not only prevent the increase of rough sleepers but to also provide aid for current homeless populations. These measures included a GBP 45 million donation to local schemes under the Rough Sleeping Initiative, GBP 2 million in health funding for substance abuse and mental health treatment, and new training for frontline staff to both support those who sleep rough and identify victims of modern slavery and domestic abuse. The review was originally estimated to report by March 2020 but is still under evaluation. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government — Robert Jenrick — stated in a February 2021 House of Commons debate that the Vagrancy Act should be repealed and furthermore “should be consigned to history”. The government will continue to report regarding its assessment of the status of the Act.
The Vagrancy Act was abolished in Scotland nearly 40 years ago, and police have instead followed alternate initiatives such as the aforementioned 2014 Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act. While the Vagrancy Act asserted that it is primarily the responsibility of law enforcement agents to respond to aggressive begging and rough sleepers, modern Acts emphasise the benefit of outside actors in providing social support. Frontline outreach services and other agents can provide aid that not only prevents an increase in homelessness but also provides support to current rough sleepers. This increased social support is preferable as a solution that better protects the rights of rough sleepers and safeguards them from further distress.
As the Vagrancy Act remains under review and alternate initiatives are established, the future of anti-homeless legislation and government policy towards rough sleeping will continue to vary. While homelessness is not in itself a crime, anti-homeless legislation and strategies restrict the rights of homeless people by transforming daily activities into punishable offences. Further legal strategies are necessary to both protect the rights of rough sleepers and convert existing legislation from efforts of deterrence to those of prevention and protection.