Hate Crimes against the Homeless: Warning-Out New England Style

By Wachholz, Sandra | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Hate Crimes against the Homeless: Warning-Out New England Style


Wachholz, Sandra, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


This article reports on the hate crime victimization experienced by thirty individuals over the course of their homelessness in a New England city. In-depth interviews were conducted with the participants in order to provide a detailed, contextual account of the nature and forms of their hate crime victimization in public and semi-public spaces. Central to the article is the argument that hate crimes against homeless people function as informal social control mechanisms that impose spatial constraints, not unlike the character and objectives of the warning-out laws that were used to exclude homeless people from the public and private space of early New England communities.

Keywords: homelessness, hate crimes, warning-out

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For homeless people in this country, public space is the realm in which they are forced to conduct the fragmented tasks of daily survival. Although public space has been romanticized as egalitarian in nature, homeless people have experienced it as a contested terrain filled with hierarchical and exclusive aspects (Anderson et al., 1994; Knowles, 2000). One of the earliest examples of efforts to segregate public space from the homeless in this country were laws imposed in colonial New England which were based on the Elizabethan Poor Laws. Homeless wanderers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were ordered to leave communities in which they did not have legal residence--a process referred to as "warning-out" (Katz, 1996).

While the pathways through public space no longer include the statutory challenges that were in place in colonial New England, homeless people are still being warned-out of public realms. These contemporary warning-out practices take on a variety of complex cultural, legal, and socioeconomic forms and include, for example, statutes which are designed to impose spatial constraints, i.e. bans on sleeping and resting in public areas. Among the current warning-out mechanisms, one of the most powerful is hate crimes. Accounts suggest that homeless people are subjected to a broad array from those who blame them for their poverty and who regard them with fear and loathing (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2003; Swanson, 2001; Wachholz and Mullaly, 1993). These crimes contest the right of the homeless to community membership and public space and can therefore be conceptualized as an extension of colonial warning-out practices. Few have studied hate crimes against the homeless, however, and this form of victimization has generally not been included in legal definitions of hate crime.

This article reports on the hate crime victimization experienced by thirty individuals over the course of their homelessness in a New England city and the implications of these crimes on sociopolitical prescriptions about who should use public space. In-depth interviews were conducted with the participants in order to provide a detailed, contextual account of (1) the nature and forms of their victimization in public and semi-public spaces (e.g. malls, stores, and restaurants); (2) how their victimization varied according to race, ethnicity, sexuality and gender; and; (3) their responses to the victimization and the strategies they used to avoid future harm.

Since the late 1970s, there has been an enormous increase in the number of homeless people in the United States, making homelessness dramatically more visible in many communities. One recent estimate suggests that nearly two million Americans are now homeless over the course of a year (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 1999a). The significant rise of homelessness over the last two decades can be attributed to such structural factors as eroding work opportunities, low wages, lack of affordable housing, de-institutionalization, and the dismantling of welfare supports. These interconnected socioeconomic forces have created conditions whereby homelessness is now a fixed feature of our landscape (Cohen, 2001). …

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