Campaign of the Year

Scrap the Act: Homelessness is not a crime

“Arresting people for being homeless only made them stay homeless. You felt like a criminal, so you end up shutting down and just relying on the homeless community instead. It becomes learned behaviour.” – Karl (former Crisis member)

The Campaign

Since 1824, the Vagrancy Act has made it a crime just to sleep rough or beg in England and Wales.

Many thousands of people have been threatened, moved on, arrested, and even fined using this archaic 200-year-old piece of legislation, which characterises people facing the worst forms of poverty and destitution in our society as ‘vagrants’ and ‘vagabonds’.

Criminalisation does nothing to resolve the root causes of homelessness. In fact, it’s more likely to push someone further away from the vital services that help them to move away from the streets.

It has been a mission for Crisis since the 1990s to see the end of this harmful and divisive piece of legislation. Over time, they have pushed the issue all the way up the political agenda; in 2021, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, declared of the Vagrancy Act, that “no-one should be ‘criminalised’ for being homeless”.

awards

Behind-the-scenes of Crisis staff creating the Scrap the Act campaign, 2019. Credit: Crisis

On behalf of all the people who bravely spoke out about their experiences of criminalisation under the Vagrancy Act and the ongoing impact on their lives, we are sincerely grateful that this campaign has been shortlisted. A society can be judged by how it treats people facing poverty and destitution, and this repeal shows that campaigning on our fundamental values about how the system should work is worthwhile. Even if we have to fight the same battle again down the line, we will, because we believe to our core that homelessness is not a crime.”

Matt Downie, CEO of Crisis

awards

Behind-the-scenes of Crisis staff creating the Scrap the Act campaign, 2019. Credit: Crisis

We are sincerely grateful that this campaign has been shortlisted. A society can be judged by how it treats people facing poverty and destitution, and this repeal shows that campaigning on our fundamental values about how the system should work is worthwhile. Even if we have to fight the same battle again down the line, we will, because we believe to our core that homelessness is not a crime.”

Matt Downie, CEO of Crisis

The Change

In 2021, Crisis worked closely with Peers and backbench MPs to bring about an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which meant that the Vagrancy Act was finally repealed in 2022.

 This should have represented a huge step forward in our treatment of people experiencing homelessness. It should have signalled that the Government recognised that offering multi-agency support to help people as quickly as possible, before rough sleeping becomes entrenched, is far more effective than punitive measures. It should have meant an end to stories like the ones Crisis shared during the campaign, of victims of crime whilst sleeping rough being too afraid to approach the police for fear of criminalisation, of people being moved on away from areas where the support services that might have helped are located, and people being fined for begging and then having no choice but to go and beg again to try and pay the fine.

 Sadly, the delay in implementing the repeal has meant that more than 1000 more people have been arrested under the Vagrancy Act since then.

The Future

Despite widespread support for repeal in all political parties, the Government is now seeking to resurrect the Vagrancy Act in all but name, as stated in its Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan of March 2023.

Crisis and many others contend that the police already have ample tools to tackle any disruptive behaviour, which means that the prospect of replacement legislation is very concerning.

People who are homeless and sleeping rough are 17 times more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators. So, the campaign will continue to make the case that the Vagrancy Act repeal needs to be implemented, finally, and that criminalisation as a first response does absolutely nothing to end homelessness. In fact, it only makes it worse.