A history of homelessness
The UK government recently pledged to 'end homelessness' by 2027. But has such a strategy ever been attempted before and, given the success of historical examples, is it even possible? Writing for History Extra, Nicholas Crowson considers the question, tracing the history of homelessness in Britain from the Victorian era to the present day, exploring how people without homes have been grouped and treated…
Teresa May’s government recently pledged itself to eradicate rough sleeping by 2027. This came as part of a new Rough Sleepers Strategy, with a spending allocation of £100m, in which a coalition of government, local councils and homelessness charities will collaborate to address issues relating to access to housing, hostel provision and mental health.
Setting aside criticisms that have been directed towards the policy (that there is no new money or that the policies are essentially a repackaging of previously announced initiatives), history suggests there is good reason to be sceptical about the prospects for success.
Shifting perceptions of homelessness
How ‘homelessness’ has been described through history matters. Today, the public continues to associate homelessness with rough sleeping, in large part because of its visibility. This is despite the efforts of charities, like Shelter, to widen the definition to a spectrum of need: from absolute rooflessness to temporary and insecure accommodation. Many of the public and the media suspect that homeless people are in this position after making bad life choices. Opinion polls frequently show at least a third of respondents attribute fault to the homeless.
The labels that have historically been used to describe homeless people complicate the responses: vagrant; squatter; loafer; sofa-surfer; statutory homeless; dosser; beggar; of no fixed abode; and tramp are just a few of the names applied.
The words ‘vagabond’ or ‘vagrant’ have Latin origins and imply the aimless wandering of the dispossessed, while ‘tramp’ is derived from the verb ‘to tramp’, which means to move between locations, actively seeking employment. It was a term applied for much of the 19th century to artisans and skilled trade union workers who moved around the country supported by their craft or trade union. However, at some point during the 1870s, tramping because increasingly associated with a flotsam of unskilled labourers, displaced and reliant upon state and charitable assistance. And, so tramping assumed the negative connotations of vagrancy and social marginalisation.
For contemporaries that employed these terms, each carried particular moral assumptions about the genuineness of need. The Victorian beggar elicited both sympathy and distrust: seeking a charitable penny was acceptable, but to ask again made them a ‘professional’ beggar – and pestering women and children meant they were a dangerous, ‘masterful’ beggar.
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During Victorian times, the wandering vagrant tramp was also viewed with suspicion. It was believed that these workshy individuals needed to be taught the value of work to encourage them to return to a settled form of living, hence the introduction of a work-duty (stone breaking, oakum picking, wood cutting) in exchange for bed and board in the Workhouse Casual ‘Tramp’ Ward. From the 1920s there was a gradual reorientation towards rehabilitating these individuals, but still through work.
The same ambiguity about people without homes continues today. The public appears willing to support street beggars with donations despite being urged not to do so by anti-begging campaigns employed by local councils, campaigns which mirror those promoted by local Vagrancy Committees in the Edwardian and inter-war eras.
The past two decades have seen a gradual recognition that government (local and national) must work in collaboration with the voluntary sector to provide a multi-agency response to homelessness. In fact, the modern British state has never been solely responsible for the homeless. Since Victorian times, a homeless person could call upon the services of the Poor Law’s workhouse casual wards (known as Reception Centres after 1948) but also charitable concerns, like the Salvation Army, which operated hostels, shelters and soup kitchens, as well as private entrepreneurs running multi-occupation properties such as common lodging houses.
The challenge of understanding homelessness is amplified by the absence of homeless peoples’ voices from history. Too often the experience of homelessness has been narrated and imagined by others, such as social investigators, charities, politicians, writers and the judiciary; the homeless areoften passive and voiceless.
There is a persistent romantic notion of the tramp wandering the highways of Britain, which is nicely captured in a 1947 Pathe newsreel, which employed an actor to capture the ‘happiness’ of the tramp. The reality of the vagrant was very different. Reconstructing the life stories of Victorian vagrants shows many were incapable of holding down jobs because they disproportionately experienced, what today would be termed ‘complex trauma’ – ill health (physical and mental) disability, addictions and relationship breakdowns. Their homelessness was not a lifestyle choice. Their individual fragilities were compounded by structural issues, such as employment cycles, that could be enough to tip these vulnerable individuals from mere poverty into the abyss of the underclass.
With the problems of labels and definitions of homelessness, another challenge arises – how do you count the homeless? There are no reliable statistics, yet each generation attempts to judge the scale of the problem. Victorians relied upon collected figures including: workhouses for admissions to the casual ‘Tramp’ ward;police forces undertaking head counts of those sleeping rough; counts from the era’s common lodging houses or local crime statistics for prosecutions under the 1824 Vagrancy Act.
The 1824 Vagrancy Act, after all, was a Georgian response to the perceived anti-social behaviours of military veterans and migrants congregating in urban areas. But the flexibility of the law’s statutes meant that a local homed person was as much at risk of being prosecuted for acts of anti-social behaviour such as begging, loitering, wandering abroad (rough sleeping), misbehaving in the workhouse, telling fortunes, engaging in or living off prostitution, or abandoning one’s family. In one notable cause célèbre in the 1880s, one which went all the way to the House of Lords on appeal, a group of North Staffordshire colliers, who were pulling a cart seeking ‘charity’ for striking workers, were prosecuted for ‘begging’. The act remains on the statute books to this day, and its critics argue that it criminalises the homeless: there were 2,365 prosecutions under section three of the act in 2015–16.
The 20th century has seen endless policy inquiries prompted by the visible numbers of rough sleepers: the Departmental Committee on Vagrancy (1904–6), the Homeless Single Persons (1966) and the Working Party on Vagrancy (1976) are just some illustrations.
Each time a crisis is declared, pleas for better insights into the causes of homelessness are made. Though if we concentrate less on the numbers (which we should treat as highly problematic anyway) we can use these scares to understand what they tell us about societal attitudes to the homeless.
Those with dependents who are homeless are always viewed more sympathetically. But this sympathy is ambiguous. Once these families are ‘homed’, no matter how poorly, the public assumes the problem is resolved. Those who have expressed surprise and disquiet about the re-homing of the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire in temporary emergency accommodation evidently appear unaware that this is the norm for modern families accepted as homeless by their local councils.
In the 1970s and 1980s, homeless families were housed in B&Bs; today it maybe budget hotel chains, or industrial units converted into multi-occupancy dwellings. But as Ken Loach’s 1966 film Cathy Come Home showed, before the 1970s matters could be worse still: the 1948 National Assistance Act split up homeless families, placed them in time-limited emergency accommodation, and ultimately took homeless children into care.
One particular problem has always been family homelessness. In 1945 there were two million more ‘potential’ households than actual homes, in part exacerbated by the wartime damage to housing stock (Coventry, for example, lost one third of its homes in the Blitz), but also because the state was unable to build new homes quickly enough due to the short supply of building materials. Also, two-thirds of the skilled building workforce was either in the military or committed to other government reconstruction contracts.
In 1946, only 55,400 new homes were built, and in the same year one of the UK’s largest acts of civil disobedience took place when 55,000 people rushed, in a matter of weeks, to occupy and squat over 1,500 ex-military camps across the United Kingdom, many in rural areas. The vast majority were seeking to escape the intolerable conditions of overcrowding, slum housing or because their homes had suffered bomb damaged during the recent conflict. Yet, the story is largely forgotten. According to police reports the majority were ex-servicemen and their families, or the wives of serving military personnel, and “of good character”. Ironically, the conditions of many of these camps were not much better than the housing conditions they were escaping. Most lacked basic services (water, sanitation and power) and the War Office had condemned many as being unfit for habitation. Yet these huts were structurally sound, some wooden and others of a corrugated-asbestos-cement construction. And despite often being of a dormitory style, the squatters set about partitioning, making improvements and organising the day-to-day running of the camps via committees.
The overwhelmed government transferred responsibility for the camps to local authorities to use as temporary accommodation under Part III of the 1948 National Assistance Act and with orders to restore utilities. Fresh waves of squatting occurred each summer until 1950. Public opinion was sympathetic to these ‘ordinary’ working people trying to escape the housing crisis.
Pledges were subsequently made in 1951 by new housing minister Harold Macmillan to accelerate new house building to 300,000 per annum. Yet despite this target being achieved in 1953, a year later 19,000 people were still resident in these camps, and many would remain so until the end of the decade.
It was not until the 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act that homelessness was legally defined. It prioritised the state’s responsibility to rehouse ‘deserving’ families (the statutory homeless) in preference to the single person (non-statutory homeless) and continued the link between local connection and a council’s responsibility to house. The burden for looking after the single homeless fell upon charitable concerns or the state’s limited network of Reception Centres (whose closure was announced in 1985). The 1977 act has been revised and replaced a number of times, most recently with the 2017 Homelessness Reduction Act obligating councils to assist all who present as homeless.
Does history suggest that homelessness can be eradicated?
When Shelter, one of the UK’s best-known homeless charities, was launched in December 1966, it aimed to eradicate homelessness within a few years. This it expected to do by working in conjunction with the Housing Association movement and by commissioning re-housing projects of its own. At the same time, it worked closely with media outlets to highlight the housing crisis, and to generate funds by hard-hitting advertising campaigns. Despite raising millions of pounds, this goal was quietly dropped in 1970 – money alone could not buy a solution – and Shelter began to re-focus its activities away from that of a direct service provider to one of a campaigning and housing advice organisation.
Governments have made bold pledges before: in 1990 the first Rough Sleepers Initiative planned to reduce the numbers sleeping on the streets by two-thirds with initial funding of £96m. New government initiatives were launched in 1999 with the appointment of Louise Casey, formerly of Shelter, to oversee the Homelessness Action Programme (1999-2002).
In 2001 government claimed success at hitting its reduction target. However, what became apparent in the longer term was that many, who had found spaces in newly funded hostels (sometimes criticised as ‘beds in sheds’), were unable to sustain the transition to longer-term, settled living. Rough sleeping has persisted, despite the positive efforts of initiatives like ‘no second night out’ (whereby outreach teams aimed to intervene when an individual was found on the streets).
In 2009, Boris Johnson as London mayor pledged to end rough sleeping in the nation’s capital by 2012. However, counts suggested the numbers of London’s rough sleepers actually doubled in that time. More recently an influential parliamentary committee reported in December 2017 that nationally there were 9,100 sleeping rough nightly and 78,000 households in poor quality temporary accommodation.
The latest incarnation of that collaboration arrived in April 2018 when the Homelessness Reduction Act (2017) come into force. Time will only tell whether it succeeds in its stated intention of assisting all those who present as homeless. Or whether, as some fear, it allows central government to offload further responsibilities onto already cash-strapped local authorities and charities.
Supporters of the latest Rough Sleepers Strategy will argue that in placing priority access to housing and welfare support, it is seeking to address some of the underlying causes of homelessness. Many of these organisations delivering services are offering vital support to some of the most vulnerable people in modern society, and they are doing so on the basis of lessons learnt since the 1990s. The problem remains that the response is reactive “crisis management”, and still does nothing to address the underlying structural problems surrounding social housing and the access to the welfare system.
Nicholas Crowson is a professor of contemporary British history at the University of Birmingham and researches histories of homelessness from Victorian times to the present
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in September 2018