Over the last few months, Cardboard Citizens have been holding discussions around the Vagrancy Act. The concluding discussion takes place on Monday 22 February and will focus on the stories of Coventry and West Midlands people affected by the act.
Passed in 1824, the Vagrancy Act made it a criminal offence to sleep rough or beg. It remains in force to this day in England and Wales and has been heavily criticised for not considering the circumstances as to why someone might find themselves in the position of being homeless.
We’re proud to support Underground Lights, a community theatre group which specifically engages with people experiencing homelessness and mental health issues.
This week, we talked to Underground Lights member Rob to find out more about his journey with the group and his struggle through vagrancy.
“I was made homeless in 2017, so I got involved with Crisis and various other groups. I was initially resistant to join Underground Lights because I didn’t have any self-confidence or faith in myself. I kept being badgered and eventually I thought “let’s do it!”
“When I joined, I threw myself into it and fully embraced all of its potentials. The camaraderie within the group makes it such a great space to work in. I’ve grown and developed and got involved in even more groups like Grapevine.
“My mission in joining these groups is to break down the stigma that people who are homeless are a waste of space. There’s so much potential out there for people, if they only knew that they had it within them. It’s empowering to be able to see that potential in myself and pass it on to other people who may not even have considered it. I was that person at the beginning of my journey.
“Something that has kept me engaged with Underground Lights is the ability to change perceptions. You can get across a point of view that people probably haven’t thought about. This is where I feel there’s a great connection to Cardboard Citizens’ discussion around the Vagrancy Act, because it’s about changing people’s perceptions of homelessness and vagrancy. The chance to communicate that with a wider audience is daunting, but necessary.”
We asked Rob if he had any highlights from his time in Underground Lights so far.
“I think one of the things I most remember is suddenly realising that I had the ability to write something that people found interesting. To put that out there and have somebody say that it’s a good idea is liberating. You can get your message out there just by doing silly things, but silly things that make people think. Who would have thought that 12 months ago I’d be dressed as a pantomime Dame? That was quite a unique moment!
“One thing Underground Lights does really well is allow each person to be their individual self as well as being part of a larger whole. All of us come from diverse backgrounds with various issues and our own personal baggage. What’s reassuring is that we’re all in this together and we support each other. The support isn’t just inside the sessions – we’re in constant communication with each other. It’s not just the two hours a week we spend at the Belgrade. It’s far more than that and it’s truly wonderful.
“I just want to say a huge thank you to Underground Lights and the Belgrade for making my journey so much fun.”
Rob discussed his involvement with Chris O’Connell, Artistic Director of Theatre Absolute.
“Chris’ Humanistan project is where my involvement with him began. Chris was very good at persuading me to write my thoughts down, rather than keeping them in my head. I found that very useful and I’ve carried it on ever since. During discussions with the co-director of Cardboard Citizens’ Vagrancy Act event, Adrian Jackson, we realised that we both know Chris. It was wonderful to me that my involvement in different groups had created so many connections. It’s like one big, happy family, and that’s something I’ve missed for a while.”
Rob then moved on to discussing Cardboard Citizens’ Vagrancy Act event in more detail and his involvement in it.
“The vagrancy law first came into being in the early 19th century, and it was bitterly opposed then by William Wilberforce, the libertarian, as being a heavy-handed cure for a difficult problem. This 190-year-old law is still on the statute books with only very minor amendments.
“On Monday night, I’ll be joining Professor Nick Crowson from the University of Birmingham and director Adrian Jackson on the panel of Cardboard Citizens’ vagrancy discussion. Putting myself out there like this is not something I’d usually be comfortable with – but if I don’t try it then I’ll never know.
“Cardboard Citizens’ event is a collective vision from the Belgrade, Underground Lights and City of Culture. We’re working as a network of organisations towards the same projects and goals. It’s a spiderweb of associations and the more you’re involved, the more you want to be involved. It’s a process of actively taking part, learning to grow and putting yourself out of your comfort zone.”