An Importance of Criminalization

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Homelessness has been an issue for centuries. During the post-war prosperity between 1950 to 1970, the gap between the rich and the poor narrowed. A 'U-turn' occurred during the 80s, in which the Americans faced deindustrialization. Due to the low wages, the job cuts, and the decrease in low income housing support, poverty was increasing at an alarming rate. Although homelessness was not severe until the 1980s, it has been documented since the 1640s and will always be a major issue. Today, more than ever, homeless people are criminalized for simply existing.

Since the 1640s, homelessness was seen as a character flaw. It was based on whether one was worthy in the eyes of the community's fathers. If not, they were sent to the next town or to hamlet. Now there are many factors that play into homelessness, yet the impact of the 1640s values continue to haunt the community. Many still believe that those who are homeless need to pick themselves up and pursue their American dream. If they are unable to, then they are deemed as a waste of space and that they add no value to society. The people who believe this, fails to realize that homelessness is not just about morals. It is also about the social economic outcomes of post-war eras and the criminalization of their survival.

Drawing from my analysis of the laws that criminalize and contribute to homelessness throughout history, this paper examines some of the laws that were established to force the homeless out of the cities. This paper also examines how these laws affect the homeless community. I argue that although these laws were made to preserve the quality of life for cities, it dehumanizes and increases the homeless population. To address this issue, the community should be offered low-income housing and a stable job so that they could get back on their feet.

Vagrancy Laws

The limitation and control of poor people's movement, the vagrancy laws, stemmed from England's Statute of Labourers. Local colonial authorities would call it the warning-out laws because it gave them the authority to prevent any immigrants from staying and to maintain total control over the distribution of jobs. Warning-out laws served to determine who could obtain jobs in colonial towns and the legal mechanism to control access to public spaces (Ortiz & Dick, 2015). This law basically restricted immigrants, without familial ties, from working and staying out in the public spaces. In doing so, they were establishing that new people had no business in their town and that they should find a home elsewhere. The vagrancy laws were based off of the English Poor Laws and punished those who they deemed were vaguely undesirable or perceived as criminals (Ortiz & Dick, 2015). It was not until 1972 that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a municipal vagrancy statute as unconstitutionally vague in Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville (Fisher et al, 2015).

The statute was considered vague because it encouraged unlawful arrests and the criminalization of modern standards that were supposed to be innocent. Today, more than ever, the vagrancy laws are specifically targeting the homeless communities who are trying to survive. Thus, criminalizing survival itself (Mitchell, 1997). It targets minor things such as: sleeping in public, sitting, loitering, begging, and many more. This is all in order to prevent the homeless from staying in the same place for too long. It is also so that the city could get rid of what they and the residences see as undesirables, so that they could make the city cleaner. Ugly Laws Chicago and Portland were the two cities that enforced the Ugly laws in the twentieth century (Ortiz & Dick, 2015).

The first known Ugly laws was from San Francisco in 1867, but the Chicago's Municipal Code, Section #36034 was more commonly cited. While the Chicago's Ugly laws targeted any unsightly or improper being, Portland's directed theirs specifically to panhandling. Many of these Ugly laws were known as Unsightly Beggar Ordinances. Although these laws were to preserve the quality of life for cities, they were faced with many efforts to overturn and repeal them. In order for the quality of life of the cities to be preserved, the laws in turn destroy the lives of many.

In 1990, the Ugly laws were officially overturned with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA worked to allow people access to public spaces by stating that the homeless are individuals who faced restrictions and limitations, as well as a history of unequal treatment (Ortiz & Dick, 2015). Along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA could only do so much to ensure that they receive equal and just treatment. The impact of homelessness has already been imprinted within the cities. Thus making it hard to overcome the situation immediately, especially if people continue to criticize and discriminate against those who they see as unsightly beggars. On top of being criminalized by the people, many cities have chosen to criminally punish people living on the street (National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty). The amount of municipal codes that criminalize the behaviors of homeless people only continues to be enforced. As the restrictions and limitations are enforced, the places where the homeless are able to take shelter at decreases. Thus making it a struggle for these individuals to settle down and look for a way to make a living.

Jim Crow Laws

In 1876 until the mid-twentieth century, the Jim Crow laws were established in order to racially segregate the African-Americans from public spaces. The official separation between the blacks and whites happened in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case. This case helped make racial segregation mandatory (Ortiz & Dick, 2015). With the separation of the races, the blacks were not allowed to use anything that was labeled for the whites. This created a hierarchy that the whites were far superior and more privileged than the blacks. They had better education and more jobs were available for them. Thus increasing poverty amongst the black community.

Although the Jim Crow era did not end until 1964, the decline of the Jim Crow laws was seen in 1938. This was when the Supreme Court gave more freedom in education to African-Americans. Any denial towards African-Americans, who wanted to attend law school in an all-white school, was deemed unconstitutional. Next was the unconstitutional segregation of train passengers which caused a burden to interstate commerce (1946). Shortly thereafter, the Court overturned a law in 1948, which prevented African-Americans from purchasing property in an all-white neighborhood (Ortiz & Dick, 2015).

Brown v. Board of Education, played an important role in dismantling the Jim Crow laws. This landmark decision guaranteed that under education, everyone had equal protection from the government. To ensure that people could freely access the public space, President Johnson signed on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Even with the freedom of the public space and the expansion of available education, poverty still remains a problem because of the lack of jobs. The young may be able to obtain education but the old lack the education to find a decent job that would help support them and their children.

Anti-Okie Laws

Anti-Okie laws referred to those who migrated to the West in hopes of securing a job in California. It is called Anti-Okie because the migrants were assumed to be from Oklahoma, but they were from other states as well. The reason why people migrated to California was because of the beginning of the Great Depression in the 1930s. The Great Depression left millions without a job or housing. Another reason was that the plains states were suffering from a catastrophic drought (Ortiz & Dick, 2015). With millions facing homelessness and farmers unable to grow crops, many decided to travel to California. The increase of population in the West depressed the wages. The Okies would stay after the harvest was done, thus increasing the amount of people on the streets. With many living in filth, the depiction of disease le[d] to the imposition of regimes of sterility and sanitation, images of moral decay and social disorder set the table for legislative efforts aimed at regulating street people and criminalizing homelessness (Amster, 2003).

Employment opportunities were not arriving fast enough to meet the demands of the increase or migrants within the population. This resulted in California passing the Anti-Okie law, which made it a misdemeanor to bring or assist in bringing poor people into the state (Fisher et al, 2015). This law was later found unconstitutional because it violated the Commerce Clause. In order to not burden the other states anymore, Justice Brynes declared that poverty is a national issue and that every state should be concerned. Since poverty was found to be a national issue, it classified anti-Okie and vagrancy laws as unconstitutional (Ortiz & Dick, 2015). This makes it possible for the migrants to continue to come to California. It also made it so that each state has to take part in welcoming those who are looking to find a job elsewhere.

Quality of Life Laws

In order to maintain the quality of life for cities, homelessness was criminalized through laws and municipal ordinances. The types of laws that were established to preserve the quality of life were the vagrancy laws, Ugly laws, Jim Crow laws, anti-Okie laws, and many more. The issue with these laws is that Rather than an attempt to remedy the issue, cities appear to be predominantly concerned with moving violators of the ordinances out of certain areas, and inevitably moving them into another area (Ortiz & Dick, 2015). Although this may solve the issue for one city, it would push the burden to another city. This cycle would just continue to happen unless the homeless community were given more alternatives than just shelters. Shelters may be a decent alternative for a while, that is until the limited amount of spaces are all full.

The Law Center surveyed 187 cities which determined that the criminalization of necessary human activities is prevalent and increasing in cities across the country (National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty). The municipal codes that were accessed for the survey were laws that prohibited sleeping in public, sitting, loitering, panhandling, living in vehicles, and food sharing. The Law Center also surveyed the increase of criminalization over the past ten years. These municipal codes would not do much in decreasing the number of homelessness. In fact, they would increase it by making it a challenge for the homeless to securely stand up on their own.

By criminalizing them for something they are unable to avoid, the cities are increasing the risk of health issues within the community. Without the shelter and the feeling of safety, the individuals are exposed to the elements and to sleep deprivation. The National Law Center of Homelessness & Poverty states that, We can end homelessness in America and, in doing so, improve the quality of life for everyone. There would be no need for the quality of life laws when poverty can be reduced by taking a step towards ending homelessness.

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An Importance Of Criminalization. (2019, Mar 26). Retrieved February 22, 2024 , from

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