A Brief History of Homeless Law

How To Challenge and Win Local Authority Homeless Decisions

A Brief History of Homeless Law

Why history is the most subversive of subjects

The most subversive, revolutionary and empowering knowledge one can have is that of the history of a subject. It gives a context to the contemporary and a cause to that which seems arbitrary. In granting us an expanded and longer perspective, it helps us to see who we are, how we came to be so and, most importantly, that the present circumstances are not the only option. In that vein then, let’s take a look at the history of homeless law and see just how little it has changed since its birth in the time of the Black Death.

The history of homeless law is the saga of our deepest instincts battling against our embryonic sense of social justice. Its roots begin in death and inequality yet its development shows the irrepressible growth of our sense of compassion and fair play. From the earliest legislation governing the destitute we see the ever-present struggle to reconcile social inequality and the allocating of a scarce resource played out between our concept of society and our primal instincts of tribe, territory and self. It shows the conflict between our desire to help those in need and our instinct to punish those who may be cheating. Its story touches everyone from the most poverty stricken destitute up to the kings and queens of England. It takes in land ownership, employment rights, workhouses, crime and punishment, and the growth of local and national government. Such is the core nature of homeless law. These same stories of wealth and poverty, power and charity, remain always present even in present day legislation. In many ways, very little has changed.

The Black Death & Homelessness

Homeless law as such has its roots in the mid-fourteenth century. Its conception lies in the Black Death and the social upheaval it left in its wake. Its birth is the Statute of Cambridge of 1388.

The aftermath of the Black Death left a severe labour shortage. Workers sensed their value and demanded (and frequently received) higher wages. The landed employers were not thrilled by this new dynamic and in response introduced a number of acts to force people to work and to keep wages at their old level. Enforcement of these reactive acts was patchy and in reality did little to stop labourers continuing to move to areas where wages were still high and the law overlooked.

One such response was the 1349 Ordinance of Labourers Act, which explicitly stated that everyone under 60 must work (or go to prison), and that wages must not be higher than the pre-plague levels. It also made it an offence (with threat of imprisonment) to give money to any able-bodied beggars who could (or should) be working instead. Uneven and heavy-handed enforcement of this and subsequent mandates became a key factor in precipitating the peasant’s revolt of 1381.

1388: The Statute of Cambridge

In 1388, a piece of legislation came into force, the demands of which may sound strangely familiar. The Statute of Cambridge placed restrictions on the movement of all labourers and beggars. If they wanted help, they could receive it only from their local ‘hundred'; the locality to which they had a settled connection. Able-bodied labourers could only move to another area with explicit permission. In addition to this, relief was restricted to the 'impotent poor': people who were destitute through no fault of their own. Such persons were forbidden from moving at all and responsibility for housing was placed upon that person's local area.

It is interesting to see that right here we have the beginning of the concepts of local connection, priority need and intentionality, right back in 1388. They never go away.

Unlike other areas of law which focus on more utilitarian subjects, homeless law is an expression of very fundamental and instinctive ways of dealing with social situations; do you really need my help: because it's effort and costly for me to help you; do you deserve it: because I don't want to spend my effort on freeloaders; and are you part of my tribe: because if you are, it might help me, if not, why should I help you?

Over the next two hundred years, various Acts were introduced, each focussing on ways to restrict the free movement of the poor and each making further distinctions between the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor. The former of were to be treated charitably: though only within their local area. The latter, defined as the idle, vagabonds, beggars and vagrants, were subject to imprisonment, branding, servitude and forced labour. The giving of alms to such people was often also subject to condemnation if not outright punishment.

An example is the 1494 Vagabonds and Beggars Act, which stated: “Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town". Idleness, those who could work but who were deemed to be choosing not to work, was in effect, treated as a crime.

The Poor Laws

1601: Act for the Reliefe of the Poore

The first piece of legislation recognisable as an actual poor law was passed in 1597 with the ‘Act for the Reliefe of the Poore’. It was quickly updated in 1601 with an act of the same name and this is commonly regarded as the first 'official' Poor Law.

It established the parish as the responsible authority and relief for the impotent poor (the old, the blind, the lame) was extended to 'the provision of 'houses of dwelling' or almshouses.

1662: The Settlement Act

Half a century later, it was decided that the earlier act wasn't working particularly effectively and needed tightening up. So in 1662 'An Act for the Better Relief of the Poor of this Kingdom', or the Settlement Act, was passed. The Settlement Act allowed for the removal from a parish of newcomers whom local justices deemed 'likely to be chargeable' to the parish poor rates. This typically meant removal back to the persons place of birth. One of the ways to establish settlement in a new area was by being in continuous employment there. In later years, other categories were added, including one which grated settlement after five years residence.

So here we have an early formulation of our current local connection criteria while the five year residency period might sound familiar to anyone dealing with eligibility related cases today.

1834 Poor Law Amendment Act

Over the previous two hundred years, outdoor relief in the form of help with food and money, had steadily been superseded by indoor relief in the form of the workhouse. In 1834, the deeply unpopular Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 (also referred to as the New Poor Law), was passed. It imposed a nationwide uniformity in the treatment of the destitute, instead of leaving it up to individual parishes. Its aim was to deter the able-bodied from claiming poor relief at all (a recurring and still current theme), but to still provide a refuge (the workhouse) for the sick and needy. The Act distinguished between the deserving (sick, elderly, disabled etc) and the undeserving (able-bodied, idle, etc), further refining the criteria which underpin today's legislation in the concepts of priority need and intentional homelessness.

Early Case Law

Then, as today, local connection was often a contentious issue between local authorities. It even made case law in 1837 when a man named Willian Withers set off from Bristol to London. Having made it only as far as Bath, he became stricken with severe rheumatism and and was required to enter the workhouse in Walcot in Bath.

After six weeks of residing there, the local parish had clearly had enough of his presence and decided to remove him to Clerkenwell where his local connection lay. Unfortunately for Mr Withers, the parish could only stretch to a perch on the outside of a coach. It left at 6pm in ‘foul weather of wind and snow’. The coach had travelled only as far as Newbury when Mr Whithers had to be lifted off the coach and 'revived with brandy and water'. By the time of his arrival in Clerkenwell he 'had lost virtually all use of his hands and feet and was a bedridden invalid'.

Clerkenwell were not happy either. They ruled that the removal of Mr Withers from Walcot had not been carried out correctly and so he would have to be returned there to be removed again, correctly. Until that happened, Clerkenwell could bill Walcot for the cost of his keep. So Clerkenwell did what anyone not paying the bill would do; they treated Mr Withers like a king, at a cost of five shillings week (around £250 a week in today's money).

Walcott had to pay £500 in legal costs (in 1837 prices), plus the initial removal expenses plus the cost of Mr Withers' upkeep until he was well enough to take the coach back to Walcot from where he could be sent back to Clerkenwell, this time, presumably, correctly.

History doesn't record what Mr Wither's experience of this was, but presumably he had a good story to tell when finally back home in Clerkenwell.

Homeless Law in the early 20th Century

Much changed in this period, driven by the granting of votes to women and their growing presence in the administration of workhouses; two world wars which irrevocably changed the social structures of the country and the modernisation of 'poor relief' into the welfare state we are more familiar with today.

1929: Local Government Act

Responsibility for providing help to the poor was transferred to the local council where it remains today.

1948 : The National Assistance Act and the Welfare State

In 1948 the Poor Law of 1834 and the Settlement Act of 1662 were finally repealed and replaced with the 1948 National Assistance Act. This Act stated that local authorities ( at that time, specifically social services) had to help people who:
  • had no settled residence,
  • who were in need by reason of age, illness or disability,
  • who were in need of accommodation, where the need could not reasonably have been foreseen, and
  • who were ordinarily resident in their area
In modern terms this describes our ‘homeless’, priority need, intentionality and local connection tests. The only category missing is eligibility, in its immigration sense, which in many ways is a modern offshoot of 'ordinarily resident' or ‘local connection’ in modern phraseology.

1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act

This was the first piece of true homelessness legislation, in that it dealt with homelessness specifically, in contrast to previous legislation which focussed more generally on 'people who were poor'. The Act, later incorporated into the Housing Act 1985, gave legal definitions of homelessness and priority need: essentially the same ones we have today. In practice it excluded most people without dependents from any statutory right to be housed.

1996 Housing Act

Becoming law in 1997, it introduced the two year limit on the rehousing duty under homelessness and broke the link between being accepted as homeless and being made a priority offer from council waiting lists.

2002 Homelessness Act

This removed the two year limit on the rehousing duty and re-established the link between being accepted as homeless and being given a priority on a housing waiting list. Most importantly, it expanded the number of priority need categories from those set out in the 1996 Act. Many of these however were little more than expansions of the already existing test of ‘vulnerability’; and in effect merely stipulated situations where vulnerability should be looked at more closely.

Post 2002 Homeless Act

Since that time, the rate of 'Orders', statutory instruments and new Acts has accelerated in a way never seen before (or at least, not seen since the years following the Black Death).

Over the last decade, homeless related legislation has affected the assessment of local connection, intentionality, temporary accommodation, affordability, how a homeless duty is fulfilled and lost and, increasingly, eligibility, due to the increased influence of the European Union on domestic law and practice.

The same themes though still operate today: do you need my help?, do you deserve my help?, and are you from around here?. Homeless law is about answering those exact questions.