Image: Mihály Munkácsy – Un Vagabond de Nuit , c.1872, (left); Etching by T. Smith, 1816 (right)
Peter T A Jones, early career lecturer in urban history at the Institute of Historical Research’s Centre for Metropolitan History, sets out the agenda for the ‘Stray Voices’ project which aims to stimulate insights into the stories of homeless men and women whose voices often remain unheeded within the historical record.
With the support of the School of Advanced Study’s public engagement innovators scheme, Stray Voices will involve the public, artists, film-makers, community activists, researchers, and those who have experienced homelessness. They will take part in a shared conversation about how history has shaped our preconceptions relating to those with no fixed abode.
Some activities are already well underway. For example, ‘Without visible means: tramping on (and off) the Great North Road’ took place on 9 September. This research-led guided walk under the guidance of Dr Luke Seaber, who teaches modern European culture at UCL, explored what it meant to be tramping on the Great North Road in search of shelter, sustenance and security.
Participants from Hertfordshire and beyond were introduced to stories of dispossession hidden in Hitchin’s lost slums, ‘a squalid quarrelsome underworld of little yards’. We encountered the Hertfordshire Hermit, James Lucas, who Dickens once described as a ‘reversal of the laws of human nature’ and who offered his charity (in the form of gin and cash) to poor travellers. A report and a short documentary film based on this walk will appear on the Stray Voices website in the coming months.
The next event on the project’s agenda is ‘Seen and not heard: the untold history of homelessness’. This performance workshop on 22 November is part of Being Human, the School of Advanced Study’s annual UK-wide celebration of the humanities, which runs from 17–25 November.
The workshop will bring together researchers, activists, and artists to explore how the experience of homelessness can shape the way we write the histories of dispossessed people. Participants include Cardboard Citizens, a pioneering company that make theatre with and for homeless people. It has more than 400 active members who perform on the stage, in the street, in hostels and prisons, often working with the real stories of its members.
On 6 December ‘Out of place: vagrancy and settlement’, a two-day conference at the Institute of Historical Research, will analyse the shifting experiences, representations and status of vagrancy in relation to the history of British settlement. How can exploring the images and realities of vagrancy sharpen our understanding of the histories of ‘settled’ communities, cities and parishes, which have otherwise been articulated from a sedentary perspective?
A pamphlet created by book designer Esther McManus, will interweave responses to Stray Voices events and research. It will be disseminated to event participants, conference delegates, and to the collections of organisations such as The Museum of Homelessness. And Senate House Library has agreed to include this work as an acquisition in its specialised pamphlet collections.
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 the housing charity Shelter, the number of ‘homeless households’ has risen to more than 50,000 a year in England.
The Grenfell Tower fire on 14 June 2017, was a grotesque instantiation of a deeper crisis in public housing. In her Guardian article Suzanne Moore, said this catastrophe was an unsettling consequence of the ‘normalisation of homelessness’ and a society which is becoming collectively inured to the prospect of ‘homeless people alongside vast empty homes’. As of 9 September 2017, only 24 out of 158 households rendered homeless by the fire had been placed in permanent housing.
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 criminalised or stigmatised. 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 20th 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.
Despite 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’.
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.
- Dr Peter T A Jones lectures in urban history at the Centre for Metropolitan History. His research reflects upon the ways that histories of street commerce and popular culture can disrupt familiar narratives of urban progress in 19th-century London.
- Stray voices: the unsettled history of homelessness
- Being Human runs from 17 to 25 November (see the full UK programme of events online