2021 Winner: The New Vagrancy: The Evolution of Moral Policing in Anti-Homeless Policy

Project Information
The New Vagrancy: The Evolution of Moral Policing in Anti-Homeless Policy
Social Sciences
Since the 1980s, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the United States has exploded. This is due to a number of structural factors including rising housing costs paired with stagnant wages, budget cuts in social services, gentrification of cities, and rising unemployment rates. Rather than addressing structural causes of this issue, the legal system in the United States takes on the strategy of criminalizing individuals affected by them. This thesis argues that individualistic emphasis on punishment is not new, and rather is rooted in moral policing from vagrancy statutes used to control unhoused populations in 14th century England. Based on historic continuities in legal strategies, I find that while the language of anti-homeless policy has evolved to punish acts rather than identity, it has kept its intent of policing unhoused people based on their moral divergence. Through a historical overview of anti-homeless policy including vagrancy statutes, settlement laws, and quality of life laws since the 1300s, this study shows that unhoused people continue to be policed based on their social identity which holds the stereotype of being morally divergent. I then pivot to discuss the legal implications of vagrancy laws that led governments to implement new anti-homeless policy that does not punish people for their status and instead controls where and when unhoused people can perform life sustaining acts. The study proceeds to give an account of contemporary anti-homeless policy, which was found to police people based on their identity and unbelongingness in public space. This historical and contemporary analysis is then connected to broader concepts such as the Protestant work ethic, individualism, and the construction of deviance to illustrate how anti-homeless policy is rooted in moral policing. The discussion then calls for new methods of integration for the unhoused such as transitional encampments and the removal of anti-homeless architecture, which can begin to shift public discourse away from the fixation on punishing individual unhoused people based on their perceived wrongdoing.
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  • Morgan Colleen Bishop (Oakes)