Vagrancy and the Homeless Essay

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Homelessness is a growing issue in the United States and in the world. According to a 2012 report  from  the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are 600,000 to 700,000 Americans defined as “homeless.” These homeless  people  include  a significant  number of veterans, former offenders, and families who struggle with homelessness on a regular basis, as well as the chronic homeless who are unable to maintain stable housing. Though there has been a decrease in overall numbers, the amount of homelessness is still significant, and in 29 states the homeless rate has actually increased. Homelessness is increasingly linked with vagrancy and increasingly subject to criminalization due to laws and ordinances that transform homeless people’s living and survival into legal offenses.

Homelessness is defined simply as the condition of people without a regular dwelling, as in being unable to secure and maintain regular and adequate housing. In 2004, the United Nations (UN) further defined the homeless as “those households without a shelter  that  would  fall within the scope of living quarters. They carry their  few possessions  with  them,  sleeping  in streets, in doorways or on piers, or in another space, on a more or less random basis.” Notably, the UN definition does not view the homeless in legal or criminal terms, in contrast with recent and growing discussions about the homeless being criminalized for the activities in which they participate everyday as a means of survival. According to a report  by the National Coalition for the Homeless  (NCH),  states increasingly have been passing punitive laws that make it illegal for people to loiter or sleep in public spaces. Cities across the nation have enacted policies that target the homeless in an effort to keep them from moving freely in public spaces. Cities such as Sarasota, Florida; Lawrence, Kansas; Atlanta, Georgia; and Las Vegas, Nevada; have enacted some of the harshest antihomeless policies. Even Berkeley, California, long noted for its liberalism, has enacted homeless policies. This is problematic in the sense that homeless people are made into criminals and often end up with police records,  which then negatively impact their ability to qualify for housing and other resource programs. Such punitive policies defeat their purpose and fail to offer any significant remedy to the bigger issue of why homelessness continues to plague society.

History of Vagrancy Laws

Laws aimed at controlling or combating homelessness or vagrancy are nothing new. Vagrancy laws can be traced to 14th-century England; these laws were enacted to keep “beggars” off the streets and, according to Paul Ocobock, as a way to control the movement and behavior of the poor. Ocobock traces how the United States and other countries have modeled their own vagrancy polices on the English laws. Though vagrancy laws have changed over time they remain consistent in their foundational ideal of controlling or “managing” the movement and behavior of individuals that society views as “undesirable.” By such means, the homeless have long been viewed as deviant, and society has embedded notions of punishing the deviant by bringing them under control.

Vagrants and vagrancy have been defined in several ways; however, the definitions always concern the poor, the marginalized, the homeless, and other individuals  in groups who are conceived of as defying societal “norms.” Ocobock, in his historical analysis of vagrancy and the homeless, states that early definitions of vagrants were “peasant farmers, illiterate ex-soldiers, famine victims, former slaves, beggars, political agitators, newsboys, migrant  laborers,  street people squatters, the unemployed, and in some cases, those that the state and upper classes feared had breached social norms.” In St. Louis, Missouri, in the 1820s the focus shifted from the poor and unemployed to people who were considered dangerous and suspicious. As the 19th century progressed, vagrancy laws, according to Ocobock, were aimed at “professional criminals and anyone who threatened the safety or livelihood of ‘entrepreneurs.’” Such language and concepts of vagrants as dangerous, suspicious, and/or criminal can be found in current laws concerning vagrancy.

Forrest W. Lacey asserts that, “Vagrancy is the principal crime in which the offense consists of being a certain kind of person rather than having done or failed to do certain acts. Other crimes of this nature include being a common drunkard, common prostitute, common thief, tramp, or disorderly person.” The word common in this context, according  to West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, means to habitually or consistently partake in these crimes. Vagrancy in the early 1950s was considered a statutory offense in almost every state, and in 37 states, according to Lacey, “living in idleness or without employment and having no visible means of support constitutes vagrancy.” Here it is evident how English vagrancy definitions and law have impacted the foundation and development of more current vagrancy laws in the United States.

Vagrancy Laws Today

Today, most states have vagrancy laws on the books,  and although the language has altered the intent remains the same: to keep the poor, the homeless, and the marginalized at bay. Cities have enhanced these laws by establishing antihomeless, antipanhandling, antiloitering, and antibegging ordinances in an effort to deal with the growing homeless populations. These laws and ordinances specifically target the homeless population and  make  the activities  in which they participate when either living or seeking to survive unlawful.  Thus, individuals sleeping in their own cars, camping in the park, soliciting money on the street, gathering in one area, sitting on the sidewalk, or simply just being homeless can cause these individuals to be detained or arrested. Moreover, the homeless appear to have the highest incarceration rates in jails. According to Kevin M. Fitzpatrick and Brad Myrstol:

although the number of people admitted to jails increase every year, the proportion admitted from criminal offenses is actually dropping. Data suggests that those who enter America’s jails are not violent but rather non-violent petty offenders … [those] largely detached from conventional society, such as the homeless.

Policy reform is called for in the treatment of the homeless; Fitzpatrick and Myrstol argue that laws and ordinances are incorrect reactions to the homeless who “are people with significant needs.” They become victims of revolving-door justice as they are detained, possibly arrested, and then sent out again; only strong intervention through assessment, referral, housing support, counseling, and systematic transition planning can break the legal cycle of punishing the homeless.


  1. Amster, R. “Patterns of Exclusion: Sanitizing Space, Criminalizing Homelessness.” Social Justice, v.30/1 (2003).
  2. Charles, J. M. “America’s Lost Cause: The Unconstitutionality of Criminalizing our Country’s Homeless Population.” Public Interest Law Journal, v.18 (2009).
  3. Fitzpatrick, K. M. and B. Myrstol. “The Jailing of America’s Homeless: Evaluating the Rabble Management Thesis.” Crime & Delinquency, v.57/2 (2011).
  4. Lacey, F. W. “Vagrancy and Other Crimes of Personal Condition.” Harvard Law Review, v. 66 (1953).
  5. National Coalition for the Homeless. A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of the Homelessness in U.S. Cities. Washington, DC: Author, 2006.
  6. Metraux, S., C. G. Roman, and R. S. Cho. “Incarceration and Homelessness.” National Symposium on Homeless Research, Washington, D.C., March 2007.
  7. Ocobock, P. “Vagrancy and Homeless in Global and Historical Perspective.” In A. L. Beier and P. Ocobock, eds. Cast Out: Vagrancy and Homelessness in Global and Historical Perspective. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008.
  8. Sherry, A. H. “Vagrants, Rogues and Vagabonds— Old Concepts in Need of Revision.” California Law Review, v.48 (1960).
  9. The State of Homelessness in America. Washington, DC: National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2013.
  10. West’s Encyclopedia of American Law. 2nd ed. (2008). (Accessed May 2013).

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