This project makes the case that understanding the social, administrative and cultural history of vagrancy is crucial because similar mechanisms still shape the experiences of the homeless and destitute poor in the present.
In recent years, rising housing costs and lack of access to affordable, decent homes in Britain, has forced many people into temporary accommodation. According to Shelter the number of ‘homeless households’ has risen to more than 50,000 a year in England.[i] The Grenfell Tower Fire which occurred on 14 June 2017, was a grotesque instantiation of a deeper crisis in public housing. According to Suzanne Moore, this catastrophe was an unsettling consequence of the ‘normalization of homelessness’ and a society which is becoming collectively inured to the prospect of ‘homeless people alongside vast empty homes’.[ii] As of 9 September 2017, only 24 out of 158 households rendered homeless by the fire had been placed in permanent housing.[iii]
What is vagrancy?
Before explaining how the shadow of vagrancy might be relevant to these contemporary conditions, it would be useful to define this term more precisely.
From the Black Death onwards, and across the British isles, authorities became increasingly worried about ‘masterless men’ who could not find work in their parish and begun to travel in search of employment or as beggars and peddlers. Vagrancy laws were first introduced in an attempt to differentiate between settled and respectable poverty versus the undeserving, vicious or ‘idle’ poor who could be whipped, branded or imprisoned as criminals.
Although punishments got less severe as time passed, after the 16th century, anyone found travelling outside their parish without a pass or licence was liable to be arrested. The result of this was that poor travellers of all forms were vulnerable to being criminalized or stigmatized. Vagrancy laws targeted those who were not legally bound to property or land. The category for vagrancy became so nebulous and all-encompassing, that it is difficult to tell who couldn’t potentially be labelled a vagrant at this time. The 1744 Vagrancy Act listed a whole range of undesirable occupations which were prosecutable under the law. You can see an example of some of these activities (including bear wards, actors in farces, and pedlars) on the excellent ‘London Lives’ website.
Why does the history of vagrancy matter today?
The 1824 Vagrancy Act responded to concerns about burgeoning vagrant ‘hordes’ by making ‘wandering abroad’ and sleeping outdoors prosecutable offences. Rather tellingly, after falling out of use in the early twentieth century, the Act returned from dormancy in the 1970s and 80s, when it was ‘used primarily as a means of policing young blacks’ before and during the Brixton uprisings. The police were ‘empowered to stop and search citizens without burden of proof merely on the basis of suspicion (“sus”) that they intended to commit a crime.’ After causing a great deal of controversy and being officially condemned by a number of public inquiries, the part of this act pertaining to the ‘Sus’ laws was repealed in 1981. [iv]
Despites these objections, vagrancy laws and their offspring have not been wiped from the statute books. Since the onset of austerity in 2010, the estimated number of people sleeping rough in England has more than doubled, from 1,768 in 2010, to 4,134 in 2016. The government and local authorities, rather than finding adequate accommodation for the poor, have increasingly looked for other solutions to clear homeless citizens from Britain’s streets. Evidence suggests that they are revisiting old discredited laws and techniques as a means of effecting these acts of removal and persecution.
In the period from 2006 to 2014, the number of court cases for “vagrancy-related offences” in England increased by 70 per cent – from 1,510 prosecutions to 2,365. Some particularly striking cases include ‘three men who were very nearly prosecuted for taking food waste from a supermarket refuse bin, and an operation in Sussex involving undercover police, which led to the arrest of 60 rough sleepers for accepting money from the public.’
There are also new laws – such Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs), brought in under the 2014 Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, that allow local authorities to enforce on-the-spot fines for certain proscribed activities. Predictably, local authorities ‘are applying these new powers to target homeless people by sanctioning what they do in public spaces’.[v]
It is important to look back and to try and understand how the attitudes, language and laws of vagrancy are shaping the way society manages its homeless populations today. If we accept that these regulations and protocols are part of the natural order of things, then it is not surprising if we end up abdicating our capacity to empathize with the distress and alienation of those who are vulnerable to the effects of homelessness.
[ii] Suzanne Moore, ‘We accepted homelessness while the rich left houses empty. No more’, Guardian [accessed 19 September 2017]
[iii] ’Frustrated Survivors of Grenfell Fire Ask, ‘When Will We Get Our Lives Back?’’, The New York Times [accessed 19 September 2017]
[iv] Cecily Jones, ‘Sus Law’, in The Oxford Companion on Black British History, ed. David Dabydeen, John Gilmore, and Cecily Jones (Oxford University Press, 2007)
[v] Victoria Cooper and Daniel McCulloch, ‘Britain’s dark history of criminalising homeless people in public spaces’, The Conversation [accessed 19 September 2017]