'I had to use street lights to read books', ex-homeless caller tells James O'Brien

11 May 2021, 12:46

By Tim Dodd

This is the moment a caller told James O'Brien of his experience of homelessness and how The Vagrancy Act was enforced against him.

The Vagrancy Act 1824 is regularly used by police to move rough sleepers on or ban them from certain locations under the threat of arrest.

Dave in Blyth began by saying: "I was homeless from the age of 15 to 24, so about seven years ago now.

"The first time I heard of that [Vagrancy] Act, I was sleeping in an alleyway and at about 2am a police officer kicked me and told me to wake up and move otherwise he would arrest me under it because it makes sleeping in a public place illegal.

"Very few people are arrested under it, which is usually the defence which is given for this act.

"The other way it's used is it's used to ban begging, which lots of people who might have a negative experience of being asked for money every time they travel to work might be thinking well that's a good reason to keep it.

"But if someone is actually asking for money there are other laws you can get them under - basically if they're being harassing or problematic. That section of the Vagrancy Act is used to arrest people who look homeless."

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Dave then described an alleyway in Oxford which he used to sleep in because there was a streetlight next to it:

"It meant that I could read books into the evening. So I could go there and get charity shop books, that used to be most of my life - getting books from the charity shop and sitting in an alleyway until a police officer told me to move."

James then asked: "I wish this was a rhetorical question, but where did they expect you to go when they moved you along?"

"Away from the town centre," Dave replied.

"It's essentially used to cleanse town centres of homeless people so that people don't have to see them. The problem for homeless people is that all of the services they need are also in the town centres."

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James remarked that "a politician who pledges to clear the streets of homeless people, and a politician who pledges to solve homelessness, are actually in a way saying the same thing for very different reasons".

When asked what helped him eventually get off the streets, Dave said that a friend gave him a sofa to stay on for a few months but that "a few months doesn't always solve the problem".

"I think it took me about a year of being relatively safely stable to find stable work. Because at first while I could get the odd job doing a few weeks here and there through an agency, most places don't want to take you on when your interview response to 'What've you done for the last five years?' is 'Well, I've mostly slept on the streets of Oxford'."