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Opinion

How street papers have been battling against a Vagrancy Act for decades

University of Lincoln professor Dr Owen Clayton tells The Big Issue why “we need to reclaim public space as being for the public, including for our homeless citizens” by scrapping the act – and how The “Hobo” News campaigned against a similar act in the USA a century ago

Founded in 1915 in St Louis, Missouri by Dr. James Eads How, the Hobo” News was the world’s first successful street newspaper, a forerunner to Streetwise in the USA and The Big Issue in the United Kingdom. Its contributors were mostly homeless transients, or ‘hobos’ in American slang. The “Hobo” News advocated progressive political reform, including the ending of capital punishment, campaigning for the protection of free speech, and against American involvement in World War I.

The paper’s most consistent campaign was for the repeal of US federal and state vagrancy laws. These laws were based on the 1824 British Vagrancy Act, which made it illegal to be out in the open without visible means of support, and which deemed offenders ‘rogues and vagabonds’. These laws are still in operation in England and Wales (though not in Scotland), and so it is remarkable to see a century-old American newspaper running a campaign that The Big Issue might run today: to repeal the country’s vagrancy laws.

The “Hobo” News published many articles against the vagrancy acts. Take a particular piece from 1918 written by the transient author Henry A. White for instance. White correctly notes that these laws criminalise a state of being, meaning that a person can be arrested for who they are, rather than what they have done: ‘These laws’, he says, ‘are so drawn that it makes possible the arrest and conviction for vagrancy of any person or persons…whether or not, they are guilty of any offence’. Making a biblical comparison, White concludes that ‘If the Archangel Michael were caught on earth today…poorly clad and without money, he would be arrested under the vagrancy laws, his wings would be clipped, and he would do time…unless Heaven itself intervened in his behalf’. White makes it clear that offenders are not guilty of any crime except the crime of poverty. Many “Hobo” News sellers were arrested for vagrancy, so much so that the paper established a legal aid fund to help accused members mount a legal defence.

In 1918, the “Hobo” News produced a poetry book written by transients. One poem, ‘No Matter Where You Go’, expressed the thoughts of an anonymous hobo at being moved around the country and finding no place that would allow him to settle. The poet moves from San Francisco to New Orleans and Boston, finding no shelter or money anywhere:

                  Not much doing in St Louis—

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                  It’s the same in Baltimore—

                  Coin don’t rattle in Seattle

                  As it did in days of yore.

The poem continues through New York City, Atlanta and several other cities, before concluding:

In the face of all such rumors

It seems not amiss to say

That no matter where you’re going

You had better stay away.

The anonymous poet expresses his feelings of frustration at being constantly moved on. In every new place, he faces the same greeting: ‘you had better stay away’. Being unwelcome everywhere creates a feeling of loneliness and isolation in the poet, feelings that are also created in contemporary Britain by the continued existence of the 1824 Vagrancy Act.

In Britain today, the Vagrancy Act is used to move people out of public spaces for begging, sleeping, or simply for being transient. Our public spaces have become places for shopping, not for people — at least not for homeless people, who are an ‘eyesore’ spoiling the shopping experience of consumers. When police move homeless people on for the supposed protection of the public, they overlook the fact that homeless people are the public. People are moved on from spaces where they might feel safe to more out-of-the-way places, to spaces that are less safe. As many homeless charities, including Crisis, Homeless Link, Centrepoint, and St Mungo’s have said, the 1824 Vagrancy Act is outdated and damaging. It needs to go.

In 1972, after decades of campaigning by the “Hobo” News and many others, America invalidated its vagrancy laws. If they can do it then so can we! Unfortunately, those laws then splintered into more detailed local public protection orders that sought to hide homeless people from areas where consumers gather. We can do better. Our Vagrancy Act needs to be replaced with laws that enshrine the rights of all citizens to shelter in the area where they currently reside, not simply where they have a local connection, as is currently the case in the UK.

We need to reclaim public space as being for the public, including for our homeless citizens. We need to repeal the 1824 Vagrancy Act, an act so old that we can’t even call it Victorian. We need to ensure that the Act does not reach its 200th birthday. The “Hobo” News would approve.

Dr. Owen Clayton is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Lincoln. He is currently working on his second book, entitled On and Off the Road: the Literature of Vagabonds, Tramps, and Hobos. He is the co-organiser of a public conference on Representing Homelessness at Lincoln on 18th-19thJuly. For details and tickets, see: http://representinghomelessness.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk/

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