Freedom to die on the streets is no freedom at all
There is something Dickensian about the term “vagrant”. It conjures images of foggy 19th century streets, brooding factories belching out thick black smoke, backstreet cathouses and toothless crones clutching half-empty liquor bottles. It’s a world of cotton mills and the King’s Shilling, when life was cheap, brief and often painful. This is partly a matter of provenance. The Vagrancy Act first appeared in our law two centuries ago, summarised in the official legislation as “An Act for the Punishment of idle and disorderly Persons, and Rogues and Vagabonds, in England”. Of course, it has been amended since, but the majority of the original act — passed when Lord Liverpool was Prime Minister — remains in force.
The cotton mills may have gone along with the gin-soaked brothels (though prostitution has just moved online), and young men may no longer be sailing to their deaths under the King’s Colours in Burma or Persia or the Crimean Peninsula, but the streets of our towns and cities remain bedevilled by conspicuous destitution.
It is a desperate, complex cocktail of issues
Here in Manchester, the dissonance is palpable. This is a handsome city, all red brick Victoriana and sharp new lines, but as you walk it you’ll notice the comatose figures lying in doorways, with crushed cans and other detritus scattered about them. You will witness men and women, standing but motionless, zombified by Spice. Go to use a central cashpoint, and more often than not you’ll look to the side and meet hopeful eyes staring back at you. On several occasions I’ve left my apartment block and found a couple of sleeping bodies gathered by the entrance, clustered around the air vent for heat. Confronted by a particularly pitiful sight, I’ve sometimes given money — but I know I am simply facilitating the problem, and quite possibly making it worse.
Perhaps the nature of what is coldly, archaically but technically described as “vagrancy” — as opposed to homelessness, which includes people without fixed accommodation but with roofs over their heads — has changed. My parents remember “knights of the road”, who would travel the same route along the Thames, periodically tapping up the dwellings along the way for bread and supplies. Perhaps the problem has merely been returned, despite or even because of a massively expanded welfare state, to its roots.
The dislocated people studded across the underbelly of Manchester and Liverpool and Oxford and London are alcoholics and addicts, former soldiers, good people who’ve fallen on hard times, abuse victims and in some cases, I’m afraid, abusers or worse. It is a desperate, complex cocktail of issues.
The rough-sleepers will drift back once the Tory bandwagon has moved on
Naturally, Manchester Council blames the government, which might be persuasive were they not legendary, amongst residents who sit outside the local consensus, for their vainglorious profligacy: this is a council that spent millions on a glass walkway but can’t cough up a penny more for the people huddled in blankets against it. In truth, there is provision — though there are requirements for accessing it. Fortunately, these government services are complemented by a network of charities — run by dedicated locals, some of whom I’ve gotten to know — which do their utmost to plug the gaps.
Maybe, however, it isn’t just a matter of funding. It sadly suits Left and Right, if those terms have sufficient meaning now, to fudge the reality. Both sides have their straw men. A subsection of the Left simply blame Capitalism, and those rapacious Tories, for deliberately brutalising the poor and needy. A subsection of the Right boil it down to individual choice: they prescribe a good scrub down with soap and water and a spell in the Army. Both sides play fast and loose with the definitions, just as they do with the definitions of poverty and destitution, to claim the situation is getting better or worse, depending on what is expedient.
The Vagrancy Act is one of many statutes still in force, but not consistently enforced. Laws prohibiting drugs operate in a similar way. In a sense, they are only used when it is convenient: when Tory conference rolls into Manchester next week, the police will use their powers to force the rough-sleepers away from the cameras, but they will drift back once the bandwagon has moved on. It’s reminiscent of the tramps and destitutes of Los Angeles: dumped on Skid Row when the great and the good from Hollywood want to hold a bash, and grandstand over the squalor that would have ruined their gala evening.
In extremis, it is okay for the state to say, “no, you do not have a choice”
Happily, I have never seen poverty in England like I’ve seen in America. I remember a young black man who would aimlessly wander up and down Ventura Boulevard, wrapped in a thick coat despite the Los Angeles sun, stopping at each call box to have a conversation with God. He was not violent, but not stable either. He obviously needed help. I remember an old man in New York at Christmas, slumped outside Central Park. Looking closer, I realised he was covered in maggots. I suspect he probably died.
There is no reason for us to put up with this here. Perhaps it’s time to reboot the Vagrancy Act, ally it to other measures and deal with the problem once and for all. We have become used to government coercion during the pandemic — some of which I think has been wrong, and needs to be swiftly deconstructed, but we have decided that, in extremis, it is okay for the state to say, “no, you do not have a choice”.
Maybe we should say that, under no circumstances, can vagrancy be “a choice”. Should you slip onto the streets, you will be arrested — and then plugged into a system that will not tolerate your life being wasted; that won’t let you drink or drug yourself into oblivion; that will insist you have shelter and help, but also insist you face up to your responsibilities.
It’s not Capitalism that puts people on the streets. But this isn’t 1824, and freedom to die on them is no freedom at all.
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