The first time she became homeless, Monica Gregory slept on the street outside Oxford's Churchill Hospital. She was 22, and domestic violence had led to her sleeping rough in the city where she was born. Passersby tried spitting on her; men approached her for sex.
The second time, she was in her thirties and had married and moved to Scotland. Domestic violence was the cause once again. With the help of the police, she made her way back to Oxford, where, after time in women's shelters and temporary accommodations, she finally found permanent housing in the historic city centre.
Now 49, she recalls how hard it was to constantly worry about keeping herself safe when she was sleeping rough – an act so pervasive that many don't realise it has been illegal for almost two centuries.
The Vagrancy Act came into effect in 1824, after the Napoleonic Wars had ended and left many soldiers discharged and destitute, begging in the streets with no work or housing. The Act covers a range of actions, but the crux of it lies in Section 4, which refers to "persons committing certain offences to be deemed rogues and vagabonds". It criminalises sleeping rough and begging. Scotland repealed the Vagrancy Act in 1982, but it remains very much in use in England and Wales. A recent Freedom of Information request revealed that 6,518 people were found guilty under the Act from 2014 to 2017. Punishments can range from a fine to up to six months of imprisonment.
Now, however, efforts are underway to repeal the Vagrancy Act, and they circle back to Oxford, named the UK's least affordable city in 2017. That year, Oxford was second only to Blackburn with Darwen in its number of deaths of homeless people, adjusted for population, in England and Wales. There, where homelessness is as unavoidable a sight as the crenellated walls of the University of Oxford's famous buildings, five people who were sleeping rough died in the span of three months this winter. Gregory knew two of them personally; the others she knew from just walking around talking to the rough sleepers.
The deaths made headlines and incentivised action, but homelessness hadn't exactly been under-the-radar beforehand. Prestigious scholars coming to speak at the university, tourists looking to see where Harry Potter was filmed, residents commuting to London – their walk from the train or bus station to the city centre would likely take them along George Street, lined with restaurants and pubs and homeless people. Turn left and find homeless men and their loyal dogs outside of Tesco. Turn right and let Cornmarket Street turn into St Aldates, where others go to beg.
It is in this environment that Shaista Aziz, an Oxford native, decided to stand for city councillor in 2018, motivated in part by a desire to tackle homelessness. "Anybody who lives in this city – in fact, anyone who lives in any major city in the UK; it's not just Oxford – it's very difficult to not be moved or be disturbed by the number of people sleeping across the different cities," she said over the phone. "The data shows that street homelessness is rising, so it's impossible not to see. So then the question is: well, what are we collectively going to do about it?"
Aziz speaks with diction honed as a BBC journalist, and with the unmistakable conviction of an experienced campaigner. She has long focused on issues of inequality and was part of the coalition that helped organise the London protest against Donald Trump in July of 2018. She is now an Oxford city councillor for the Labour Party and co-founded the Labour Homelessness Campaign in December.
The campaign is open to anyone who is a member of the Labour Party. "We have a lot of interest from councillors, from MPs, from members, from student groups, from activists," Aziz said. One of its goals is to repeal the Vagrancy Act. "There's no need for it," she explained to me matter-of-factly. "We demand the removal of it. To demonise and criminalise people sleeping out on the street is just disgusting, and it needs to go. We believe it will go. We believe there’s a lot of interest."
That interest goes beyond Labour members. Last year, Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, tabled a bill in Parliament to repeal the Vagrancy Act. She was inspired by a University of Oxford student group called On Your Doorstep, which first brought up the idea of repealing the 195-year-old law. According to Conor McKenzie, the campaign officer for the Liberal Democrats in Oxford, Moran's focus is now on raising awareness of the Act's continued existence.
The arguments for repealing the Act boil down to this: it is anachronistic and no longer helping anyone. Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs for the homelessness charity Crisis, told me that the organisation is currently doing research on the Vagrancy Act and talking to frontline police and street outreach teams. "And so far," he explained, "it doesn’t appear that there’s any clear reason to still have it at all." In fact, it can get in the way of building the trust that is necessary to effectively help rough sleepers, many of whom suffer from trauma and mental health problems. "Throw into that risk the risk of arrest and prosecution and it makes it much harder, much less likely that somebody will successfully end their homelessness in that situation."
Repealing the Vagrancy Act is party policy for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but it won’t go anywhere without the government's backing. "The government do not believe that anyone should be criminalised for simply sleeping rough, but equally we should not rush to a wholesale repeal of the 1824 Act without proper consideration of the consequences," argued Jake Berry, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities, and Local Government, in a Parliamentary debate on the 29th of January. "The 1824 Act is sometimes the only option to get someone off the street when they have become dependent on begging income to support their drug or alcohol dependency, and to find ways of moving towards the support they need."
When I asked Downie about those potential consequences, he laughed before saying that Crisis' research has shown that there’s nothing to worry about when it comes to repealing the Act. "I would say that the argument against going slowly," he said, letting out another chuckle at that final word, "is that we need to go quickly precisely because homelessness is so bad at the moment and it stands in the way of helping people."
And yet, eliminating the Vagrancy Act is not a miracle cure – rough sleepers could still face punishment even if it were repealed. The 2014 Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime, and Policing Act gave local councils the right to institute public space protection orders. These PSPOs can be made if activities in public spaces have "a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality" and are of a "persistent or continuing nature". Violators face a £100 fine. The Home Office has told councils not to use the PSPOs to criminalise homelessness, but a recent Guardian investigation found that at least 60 councils have PSPOs that forbid "putting up tents, seeking charity and other behaviour associated with rough sleeping, up from 54 last year". A 2018 VICE investigation found that at least 16 local councils had been using PSPOs to fine people for behaviour related to homelessness, pushing them further into debt.
Oxford had a PSPO in effect until the end of January. It has since lapsed and the council is undertaking consultation before it makes a decision about reintroducing it. According to Dave Lansley, the City Council’s communications officer for homelessness and financial inclusion, "The PSPO was not used to target homeless people or rough sleepers and nobody was fined or prosecuted for being homeless or a rough sleeper."
Beyond the PSPOs, another issue complicates the task of helping rough sleepers: funding. Services for homeless people have not escaped the austerity that has hit so many other public services across the country. In Oxford, it was Oxfordshire County Council that once funded all supported accommodation for single homeless people and rough sleepers. But, according to Lansley, "In 2015/16 it signalled its intention to cut its spending – which had stood at nearly £2.3 million a year in 2013/14 – to zero. County funding of £500,000 is available for housing related support services in 2019/20." Now, the City Council is commissioning services that were once funded by the county.
"The services are trying their best, but with all the cuts to the services and the cuts to the mental health and the cuts to policing, it has a huge effect on everything," explained Monica Gregory. Her own bouts of rough sleeping behind her, she now works with homeless people in Oxford, particularly women and victims of domestic violence. They tend to avoid shelters out of safety concerns; Gregory emphasised the need for funding to create more women-only accommodations.
Those working on repealing the Vagrancy Act stressed over and over again that it is impossible to consider rough sleeping without considering the conditions that have led so many people to experience rough sleeping – things like housing costs and cuts to health services.
"There's a whole catalogue of issues that come under the umbrella of homelessness, and we cannot just target homelessness by itself, because that is like putting a sticking plaster on a gaping wound," said Aziz. But, she continued, turning to the more immediate goal: "The people who are living on the streets, they are people. They are in pain and they’re suffering, and they simply can’t wait for the entire system to be overhauled."