Academic journal article Social Justice

Patterns of Exclusion: Sanitizing Space, Criminalizing Homelessness

Academic journal article Social Justice

Patterns of Exclusion: Sanitizing Space, Criminalizing Homelessness

Article excerpt

IN RECENT YEARS, A PATTERN HAS EMERGED, A SEEMINGLY SELF-EVIDENT TREND toward restricting, regulating, and removing from public view persons commonly referred to categorically as "the homeless." I first encountered these processes in a variety of scholarly and journalistic sources and, most acutely, in my then place of residence, Tempe, Arizona, a southwestern "college town" of just under 200,000 that is often seen as the social and recreational center of the Phoenix metropolitan area. While exploring these questions theoretically and pragmatically, I discovered that rather than an "emerging" trend, patterns of spatial exclusion and marginalization of the impoverished that have existed throughout modern history have reemerged.

As such, this study attempts to locate contemporary manifestations of these patterns in their historical contexts, comprising a theoretical overview of anti-homeless legislation and regimes of spatial control. Moreover, these inquiries are grounded in events and activities observed in practice, drawing upon various media publications, government and corporate documents, participant observations of homeless communities, and open-ended interviews with street people in Tempe (approximately 75, conducted over a three-year period from 1998 to 2001). In the end, both my theoretical exposition and grounded case study conclude that homeless street people have been frequent subjects of demonization and criminalization, and that contemporary trends reflect even further "advancements" in patterns of regulatory fervor and casual brutality. Accordingly, this study aims to illuminate these trends, to raise awareness about and encourage activism around the implications for the homeless and the public spaces they often occupy, and to make "legible" the violence that pervades such social policies.

What is it about the homeless that inspires such overt antipathy from mainstream society? What is so special about their particular variety of deviance that elicits such a vehement and violent response to their presence? After all, "the homeless" as a class lack almost all indicia of societal power, posing no viable political, economic, or military threat to the dominant culture. Of course, as studies of deviance have continually borne out, a society's response to "deviant" elements is rarely linked in a direct way to any actual or credible threat. The threat is more one of perception than reality, more of a societal preemptive strike against an as-yet-unborn threat that often originates within the dominant culture itself, but finds concrete expression in some abject, powerless element of society. As such, depictions of "deviant subcultures" in the mainstream media are likely to feed into stereotypes of danger, disorder, disease, and criminality, helping to construct "the other" as inferior, inhuman, unsympathetic, deserving of their fate, and perhaps even requiring punitive measures. That all of this arises more from perception than fact testifies to the power of human emotions and collective consciousness, as well as to their horror. It is, after all, a short journey from diversity to deviance, from deification to demonization, and from sanctification to criminalization.

Demonization and Disease

As Henry Miller (1991) has observed, there have been times in history in which the image of the homeless beggar was one of sacrificial piety and mendicant holiness. Nevertheless, such characterizations have been the exception, and, at least since the enclosure of the common lands in 16th-century England, almost nonexistent. Once domains of private property began to dominate the cultural and physical landscape, "vagrancy began to be seen as a threat to the order of things"; later, as urban centers began to develop and market economies took hold, "vagrancy was to be perceived as a threat to capitalism" (Ibid.: 9). This was particularly true in the developing United States, where a version of the Protestant Work Ethic is intimately connected to the national mythos of equal opportunity and free-market meritocracy (cf. …

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