Written by Kayla Beren
Homeless individuals are among the most vulnerable people in the Global North. They face a number of disadvantages, including higher mortality rates, increased likelihood of physical and mental health challenges, and extreme stigma, resulting in additional interpersonal and political challenges. While homelessness has been normalized in modernity, deep roots of purposeful structural design have made the lives of homeless individuals increasingly difficult. Simultaneously, mass media and impressionable social actors present the issue as result of personal inadequacy, and the homeless themselves as dirty, deviant or immoral [sic].
Homeless individuals are more likely to have intersecting identities, which contributes to prejudice and stigmatization. A report done in Calgary noted that 60% of homeless persons lived with mental illness, and 20-40% of homeless youth were LGBT+. Additionally, the National Youth Homelessness Survey reported that racialized minorities, individuals who were abused in childhood, children from low-income families, recent immigrants, Indigenous people, and people with disabilities and addictions are overrepresented in the homeless population. These statistics illuminate the complicated intersection of identity, experience and social determinants of health which contribute to homelessness. This directly contradicts the notion that homelessness is a personal moral failing, instead pointing to structures which underpin a lack of safe and affordable housing, increased rates of poverty, neoliberal ideologies in policy, and criminalization of the homeless population sustaining low income and social stigma.
While homelessness is not a modern invention, this public health issue has been contemporarily accelerated. Increased rates of poverty, changes in the economy, financialization of renting, and alterations of government policy (including divestment from social housing) have been cited as reasons to blame for a lack of access to safe and affordable housing. Further, legal response to homelessness has largely worsened the lives of individuals who are homeless, and social stigma has contributed to the lack of assistance for those living on the streets and contributed to shame of utilizing the services that exist. Vagrancy and anti-camping laws have contributed to negative perceptions of homeless individuals, as well as criminalization of activities which homeless people are required to engage in for survival. Historically, these laws were used to control undesirable social groups; many parallels exist today.
In the 14th century, the bubonic plague ravaged Europe, killing an estimated 25% of the entire European population. Many changes in policy occurred at this time as countries attempted to mitigate the societal damage of the “black death.” As a large percentage of the working population had died, vagrancy laws were introduced in England as a way to keep remaining workers in one location – if you were existing in one place without employment or shelter you were considered “vagrant.” The goals of this measure were economic, as remaining workers could not travel to seek higher pay due to mass labour shortages. In the following centuries, these laws did not disappear, and instead morphed into a tool of social control for those who were vagrant and marginalized. Vagrancy became associated with disease and filth, which justified law enforcement policies and general exclusion [sic]. In other words, it became commonplace to criminalize and socially reject homeless individuals under the guise of utilitarian health policy.
In Canada, vagrancy legislation was modelled after English laws. This can be tied back to legislation passed in Halifax in 1759, which targeted “rogues, vagabonds, and other idle and disorderly persons.” As was introduced in England, certain individuals deemed “deserving of charity” could carry certificates which allowed them to wander public places without punishment; particularly people who were disabled, sick, scholars or soldiers were largely considered to be in need of relief for “justifiable reasons”, yet this relief was granted with threat of future punishment. These certificates introduced the idea that some causes of homelessness were more worthy of assistance than others.
In 1869, federal legislation targeted “vagrants” which was enacted at all levels of government. The first Criminal Code in 1892 replicated this category; vagrancy was not an offense under law in the general sense, as individuals were never charged with vagrancy itself. However, there was a vagrancy section within the Code, which outlined enumerated offenses. In 1953, as employment became more available following the great depression and world wars, certificates to legitimize need were abolished, and begging was prohibited. Vagrancy laws became specifically concerned with punishment. The rewording of legislature to state “committing vagrancy” instead of “being vagrant” solidified displacement as an action instead of a status.
While vagrancy laws were previously limited to specific locations (public property) the act of wandering without “apparent means of support” in any public or private space was now considered an offence. The Minister of Justice at the time, explained, “[T]he mere fact that he is able to live, presumably by illegal methods which cannot be proven, will constitute vagrancy.”
In the 1970s, attention was given to vagrancy laws, on the basis that they failed to respect the freedom of individuals and gave law enforcement an unreasonable amount of power due to vagueness in legislation. Specifically, the punishment of anti-social behaviour [sic] that was not criminal. Therefore, alteration to legislature which currently stands reads as:
While homelessness is not currently criminalized directly, many of the activities of individuals who are homeless are considered to be criminal. Panhandling and squeegeeing (forms of begging) are chargeable offences in most regional governments, as well as the mere presence of homeless individuals (e.g. Sleeping) in many public spaces. Municipal bylaws may address more specific public behaviour, such as “appropriate” uses of parks and transit, as well as streets [sic]. Commonly referred to as “anti-camping laws”, in many municipalities sleeping and seeking shelter in public places is banned. Hostile architecture may even be implemented to deter individuals from sleeping/occupying space in public areas. Fining individuals with little choice of alternative behaviour, paired with the blatant inability of homeless individuals to pay associated fines, criminalizes both homelessness and acts to preserve poverty in this population. Further, the presence of a criminal record largely bars charged homeless individuals from attaining or maintaining employment whether currently or in the future. It is clear that a focus on penalization is not working to decrease the precedence of inequity in Canada, and instead decreases the quality of life for individuals who are vulnerable while criminalizing poverty.
The pandemic has not halted vagrancy legislation. Capacity limitations in shelters, increased transmission risks due to close contacts, barriers to adequate sanitation, limited access to PPE, and poorer health outcomes make many homeless individuals a specifically vulnerable group. Further, booking appointments, information on how to access vaccinations and testing heavily relies on access to the internet and/or a phone. Individuals turned away from full shelters were faced with the risk of fines worth hundreds of dollars. In Montreal, several homeless individuals turned away from crowded shelters faced $1,550 for “illegal gatherings.”
The narrative that homelessness is an individual moral failing acts to conceal the structural reality which underpins and sustains a lack of affordable and secure housing in Canada. Contrary to neoliberal perspectives of homelessness, it is not, and should not, be defined by a lack of housing or personal inadequacy, but several social exclusionary factors manifesting in barriers to participation requiring an equity-based social solution.
Tonight, homeless individuals in Canada will fight for their right to sleep outside under a tarp without being harassed, ticketed, or imprisoned. The fining of homeless individuals during the Covid-19 pandemic despite their blatant inability to pay exuberant fees for existing has been regarded by global health professionals as constituting “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Yet hasn’t it always been?