Britain has a dark history of criminalising homeless people in public spaces

Sleeping rough in Manchester. Image: Getty.

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. As the number of homeless people increases, while support services and hostels are diminishing, rough sleepers are becoming ever more visible in British cities. The Conversation

But rather than finding ways to accommodate the homeless, the UK government has sought to criminalise them. From archaic vagrancy laws, to the more recent Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs), governments have been passing new laws and reviving old ones which result in the punishment of people with no fixed abode.

People without access to land or property are denied the freedom to roam, sit, eat, wash or sleep in public spaces. Or, where local authorities do lawfully permit street homeless people to access and use public spaces (for homeless camps, homeless shelters or day centres), these sites are routinely monitored by criminal justice agencies, bringing the homeless under direct surveillance and control.

Modern day vagrants

The criminalisation of the homeless can be traced back to 1824 and beyond, when vagrancy laws were implemented to control the spread of “urban poverty” at the height of the industrial revolution. During this time, land privatisation was being rolled out on a mass scale, and hundreds of thousands of people who lacked the means to purchase property were displaced from their homes and prohibited from accessing the land they once lived on.

Sleeping outlawed. Image: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums/Flickr/creative commons.

Vagrancy laws criminalised access to land in cases where there was no contractual relationship, which gave police the power to arrest people who were not legally bound to property or land. These individuals were characterised as “incorrigible rogues” and “mobile anomalies” by the law, and punished with flogging, incarceration and even transportation to penal colonies such as Australia.

Fast forward almost two centuries, and these antiquated laws – and imperious attitudes – are still very much with us. 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. The most noteworthy cases involved 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.

Hostile streets

This is the work of successive governments. Civil orders introduced under Tony Blair to target “street-crime” effectively led to a clampdown on begging, which sanctioned homeless communities en masse. When the coalition government came to power in 2010, these civil orders were amended to give local authorities even greater powers over what people do in public spaces.

In particular, Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs), brought in under the 2014 Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, allowed local authorities to enforce on-the-spot fines for certain activities. Predictably, local authorities are applying these new powers to target homeless people by sanctioning what they do in public spaces: street drinking, begging, camping in parks, defecating and urinating and in some cases even sleeping.

Not only do PSPOs criminalise the homeless, they also make these tactics appear as a local response to a perceived problem and avoids the exposure and opposition which national measures usually invoke. Yet PSPOs are not a local response: their use is widespread across England, and it’s increasing, with one in 10 local authorities now using PSPOs to criminalise homeless people.

To make matters worse, private owners of commercial land are boarding-up shop doorways, erecting spikes and using possession laws to forcibly remove the homeless from commercial spaces.


The fight for the right to exist

Yet there have been moments of resistance against these anti-homeless measures. Both campaigns by organisations such as Liberty, and individuals like the family who placed cushions over anti-homeless spikes in Manchester, are challenging the punitive measures adopted by local authorities. In some areas this has led to the successful withdrawal of PSPO proposals.

In austerity Britain, these movements are gathering momentum and stirring up indignation about the uneven distribution of wealth, property and land. Some resistance movements are even occupying empty properties to make space for homeless people and homeless communities themselves are documenting their own daily struggle as they fight for the right to exist in public spaces.

Homelessness itself is not yet a crime, but anti-homeless laws and strategies are restricting homeless people’s freedom, and turning everyday activities into punishable offences. Yet survival defines the daily lives of homeless people, and in the face of oppression they will find new ways to expose the violence and prejudice they encounter in the every day.

Victoria Cooper and Daniel McCulloch are lecturers in social policy & criminology at The Open University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.