NYC to introduce ‘right to sleep outside’: What rights do London’s homeless people have?

Rough sleeping on London’s streets has risen in the early part of 2023, compared to the same period last year  (Victoria Jones / PA)
Rough sleeping on London’s streets has risen in the early part of 2023, compared to the same period last year (Victoria Jones / PA)

New York could soon become the first city to introduce a “homeless bill of rights”, giving rough sleepers the “right to sleep outside”.

The move cleared the first hurdle in becoming a new policy when it was cleared by New York Council in April and would give unprecedented rights to those who are classed as homeless.

New York City’s public advocate, Jumaane Williams, who introduced the idea, called it a “base standard, a moral and legal obligation that the city must meet for vulnerable unhoused New Yorkers”, and would give rough sleepers the right to sleep outside as well as the right to shelter if wanted, the right to an interpreter, and the right to be placed in a shelter consistent with one’s gender identity.

The move is the first for a major city.

In the UK, reports have estimated that the number of people rough sleeping in England recently increased for the first time since 2017.

The Government released its ‘Ending Rough Sleeping for Good’ strategy in September, which aimed to uphold its manifesto vow to eradicate rough sleeping. The surge has been dubbed a “massive, collective failure” by one homelessness charity.

Rick Henderson, chief executive at Homeless Link, which is the national membership charity for front-line homelessness organisations, said the rise by more than a quarter of rough sleepers, year on year since 2021, “is evidence of how the cost-of-living crisis has exacerbated long-standing drivers of homelessness”.

He said: “Everyone deserves a safe place to live and the support they need to keep it. This shocking rise in the number of people sleeping rough represents a massive, collective failure. People are being let down by systems that should protect them, forced onto the streets at the expense of their physical and mental health.”

But what are the current laws for England’s homeless? We take a look at the laws and the help in place for rough sleepers at present.

How many homeless people are there in London?

The most recent statistics showed that there were 858 people in 2022 estimated to be sleeping rough in the capital on a single night, compared with 640 people in 2021, an increase of 218.

In England, 3,069 people were counted as rough sleepers on a single night last autumn, according to annual government figures. The rate of people sleeping rough on a single night in England in 2022 was 5.4 people per 100,000 – up from 4.3 per 100,000 in 2021 but lower than the 8.5 per 100,000 in 2017.

Almost half, 47 per cent, of all people sleeping rough on a single night in autumn are in London and the South-East, the Government said.

Is it illegal to sleep rough?

Under current UK law, sleeping rough is a criminal offence under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, which uses language and descriptions more akin to a Dickens’ novel. The charity Crisis says local authorities and police are increasingly using enforcement measures in England and Wales to address rough sleeping and anti-social behaviour, such as begging and street drinking.

The charity says it is “concerned by any measure that could make life more difficult for rough sleepers and put them at greater risk of harm”.

Formal enforcement measures taken by the police, local authorities, and other agencies can include a homeless person being given a warning, a fine, or even being arrested.

Why is the Vagrancy Act controversial?

Charities and organisations relating to homelessness say that arresting someone simply for being homeless does not solve the rough-sleeping problem in the UK.

The Vagrancy Act was implemented in 1824 to clear makeshift camps of discharged soldiers and sailors left without income or accommodation in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars.

It is an archaic law that has been used ever since by police forces and local councils. The law has been slated by charities and, after campaigning, the UK Government pledged to scrap the legislation in 2021.

Speaking then, a Government spokesperson said: “We are very clear that we are not criminalising rough sleeping and the Government will repeal the outdated Vagrancy Act.

“However, there are some instances of nuisance behaviour by those begging or sleeping rough that can cause harm or distress to the individuals and the wider public.

“Where this happens, the Government wants to ensure police forces and local authorities are given the tools to direct vulnerable individuals into support where appropriate and help the public feel safe.”

In February 2022, the Act was finally repealed in Parliament, but it is still technically on the books and going through the process of being withdrawn.

Concerns have been raised by charities such as the Big Issue that the Act is not being repealed in full.

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which was written to replace the Vagrancy Act, featured a clause from the Government to “disregard the repeal of the Act”. It would also allow ministers to create “criminal offences or civil penalties” relating to begging or people deemed to be “rogues and vagabonds”.

The issue is ongoing in Parliament.

How to help rough sleepers

If you are concerned about someone over the age of 18 who you have seen sleeping rough in London, you can use StreetLink. StreetLink London exists to help end rough sleeping in the capital by enabling members of the public to connect people sleeping rough with the local services that can support them.

If you think the person is a child, then contact police and, if you are concerned that a homeless person’s life is in immediate danger or needs urgent care, call 999.

Young people facing homelessness can contact Centrepoint.