Don't Make Criminals of Homeless People
Letter to Guardian 19th March 2019
As Labour party members, and supporters, we welcome the announcement by the Labour leadership that it will repeal the 1824 Vagrancy Act once the Labour party is in government, but more needs to be done to end the criminalisation of homelessness. The Vagrancy Act makes it a crime to sleep “in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart of waggon, not having any visible means of subsistence”. People can be fined up to £1,000 and given a two-year criminal record under an act which specifically targets the most marginalised in our society, and thousands face arrest every year.
The Vagrancy Act is just one segment of a system of criminalisation of people experiencing homelessness and rough sleeping. Public space protection orders can make it illegal to beg or sleep rough within a given area. A raft of other anti-social behaviour measures, from criminal behaviour orders to dispersal orders, give police and councils powers to move rough sleepers on, or give them a hefty fine. A study by the charity Crisis showed that 73% of rough sleepers experienced some kind of criminalisation in the last year. People experiencing homelessness can be intensely vulnerable. Too often these measures trap people in a cycle, faced with fines they cannot pay and with a growing mistrust of those official council services they should be turning to for help.
No more can we threaten to fine people who have nothing. No more can we accept legislation which targets rough sleepers as criminals, when they are far more likely to be victims of harassment, violence and abuse. We’re calling for an end to the Vagrancy Act, and for councils and police forces to cease using all measures which ban begging and rough sleeping or target those experiencing homelessness.
Rachael Maskell MP, Hugh Gaffney MP, Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP, Catherine West MP, Karen Lee MP and more than 240 others (see full list at https://www.labourhomelessness.org.uk/open-letter