01 March 2017

A Cultural History of Criminalizing Homelessness

Recent decades have seen a drastic rise in the number of homeless people, both individuals and families, and this is largely due to unemployment, limited affordable housing and failures of social safety networks. According to a 2005 United Nations survey, there were approximately 100 million people worldwide dwelling on the streets and another 1 billion without inadequate housing. Since then, the problem has only worsened, as the number of homeless people within several countries still remains considerably high.

Christopher Ubsdell, who has been homeless in London for seventeen years, sees the problem this way:
What you have is a wide-ranging political agenda across the whole spectrum of government, where they are criminalizing homeless people and criminalizing people on benefits. If anything goes wrong in society they always blame it on the people who cannot defend themselves, and homeless is one of those categories.
Ubsdell's story is just one among a thousand tales of the homeless. Due to the perceived danger that their status seems to pose to society, poor and homeless people have long been blamed for their situations. Such stigmatization has resulted in mass criminalization of poverty and homelessness at the hands of policy-makers.

Along with the rise in homelessness, there has also been a rise in surveillance on so-called "troubled areas," numbers of designated "homeless-free" zones, harassment and punishment towards the homeless in public places. Throughout several parts of the world, governments are increasingly devoted to enforcement-based policies toward homelessness and other associated "anti-social" activities. In 2014, with the enactment of the Anti-Social Behavior, Crime and Policing Act, the London borough of Hackney council implemented a "public space protection order" outlawing begging, loitering or sleeping rough in specific locations. In America, homeless people are now even prohibited to sit or lie on sidewalks in more than 80 cities, whereas in 2011, there were only 37 cities banning sleeping in cars. No matter how diverse the levels of these acts are, they are all attempts to criminalize poverty and homelessness through law enforcement.


Still, is there truly a recent punitive turn towards the poor and the homeless? I suggest that a perceived recent trend of criminalization may not exist, as the core element of anti-homeless policies has been consistently punitive. Although their purposes are altered depending on different times and socio-economic circumstances, these laws are more specifically designed to attack than to help protect the homeless. Rather, the disciplinary nature of vagrancy laws and anti-homeless ordinances has been resurrected and intensified under neoliberal economic policies.

Legal scholars generally agree that the first vagrancy statute was fully developed and passed in England in 1349 to punish anyone without a job. These people were called "valiant beggars," because they were thought to refuse to work and therefore stood a chance of feeding on other people's charity. As cited by Chambliss, the statute also stated that only by being imprisoned would these "potential beggars" agree to work to earn a living.

Early vagrancy laws were established to reduce the cost of poverty treatment for local municipalities and to prevent property crimes by broadening the categories of offenders and potential offenders. Also, with the shortage of labor preceded by the Black Death, vagrancy laws were meant to ensure a stable supply of cheap workers for landlords by criminalizing begging as a form of intentional idleness and curtailing the mobility of laborers. Chambliss further notes that people were forced to work even with low wages in order to be considered legitimate for poor relief, or else they would be punished.

Decisions for arrest were often based on one's status instead of crimes committed. At that time, vagrants were the main targets of imprisonment because they were thought to be dangerous by carrying diseases or involving in robberies and murders. Even in cases where they were not directly threatening the social order, vagrants were still perceived as potential sources of havoc. Vagrants were "undeserving," while other poor people, who deemed to be "deserved" of poor relief or workers that had a "master," were allowed to ask for alms in public spaces and were excluded from punishment under the legislations.

The stigmatization of social status is being revived under the new political economy, as homeless and other visibly poor people are being targeted to keep social security in check. In many cases, the presence of homeless people on the street alone is thought to leave an unhealthy impression on the economic condition of an area. Homeless people are more likely to be charged than non-homeless citizens even though their offenses are not serious, most of which are related to begging. Punishment against the homeless was further encouraged in 1982 when Wilson and Kelling proposed the “broken window theory,” which argues that while a single vagrant does not matter, a gang of vagrants matters much as it "may destroy an entire community." Even in circumstances where they "harmed no identifiable person," homeless people are still treated as "broken windows" in need of repair through punitive measures.

As the history of vagrancy laws is the concern of a social elite, current anti-homeless policies attempt to secure the economic and political interests of legislatures. This has led to further discrimination, exclusion and discipline born at the sacrifice of the lower class for the interests of the privileged. In this context, putting priority on public aesthetics is designed to soothe the complaints, fears and worries among the urban upper class. As noted by Udvarhelyi about the situation in Hungary, for example, criminalizing legislations, designation of "homeless-free" zones, intensification of surveillance on the homeless and urban gentrification campaigns are examples of policies that prioritize "clean" and "safe" public spaces at the expense of basic human needs.”

We are now living in an era where freedom and individualism are encouraged, but it is this individualistic ethos that frames the lower classes as being solely responsible for their own predicaments. Attempts to criminalize homeless people reveal an underlying truth of how the attitude towards homelessness among the privileged is the root cause for this trend. The dominant view that homeless people are problematic results in the demand of their removal from public spaces by criminalizing their status and daily activities. This attitude has been carried over since the emergence of early vagrancy laws until the present, and is now intensified under the effects of the new political economy. Local municipalities, in order to secure their positions, prioritize the rights of other citizens over those who are homeless. Yet, this ought to concern political leaders lest the be accused of what Wacquant terms as the "deficit in legitimacy." Homelessness proves to be an obstacle for the advancement of politicians, but finding an effective solution may cost them time and money. Therefore, the fastest way is to satisfy the opinions of local citizens, whose votes and support will determine their prosperity, by driving the homeless away from public and to legislate them out of existence.


We need to remember that people do not choose to be homeless, and that homelessness is not a crime. Vagrancy laws and anti-homeless ordinances are not effective solutions. Instead, coercion and heavy reliance on the police force only worsen the problem since it sharpens the social inequalities that already exist between the lower class and the "other," as well as violates the rights of homeless people. Imprisonment has been shown to likely increase the risk of homelessness than actually reduce it. After being released from prisons, homeless people are still left with no shelters and no food provision. In the UK in 2012, for instance, 15% of prison inmates were reported being homeless prior to incarceration while more than 80% needed help with accommodation on being deinstitutionalized. In addition, records of conviction, whether serious or minor, can prevent access to job opportunities, housing options and public empathy, making homelessness more difficult to escape. This results in homelessness not being solved but passed forward within an unbreakable cycle between local municipalities.

[This essay is by Le Bao Trinh Vu and is based on her graduation in Culture, Society and Media at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan. She is currently a graduate student at Nagoya University. Her research interests revolve around poverty studies as well as Japanese studies with a focus on Japanese culture and literature. Outside classrooms, she is interested in writing short stories and translating news between Japanese, English and Vietnamese.]

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