The term vagrancy refers to the act of being homeless, without evident means of supporting oneself when able to work. As far as vagrancy laws are concerned, this definition is combined with such acts as loitering, being drunk in public, prostitution, and other actions. Vagrancy has historically been a criminal act, the specifics of which varied by jurisdiction, often at the city or municipal level. To explore this concept, consider the following vagrancy definition.

Definition of Vagrancy


  1. The crime of wandering about, engaging in criminal acts, without employment or identifiable means of support.


1635-1645       Middle English

History of Vagrancy

A vagrant, also referred to as a “vagabond,” is a homeless person who wanders from place to place, often living by begging money from other people. In historic times, vagrants were considered criminals, whether or not they committed other crimes. In fact, in Colonial America, a person who came into a town and failed to find a job right away was run out of town.

In the Southern states, following the Civil War, vagrancy laws were instituted in an attempt to control freed slaves. With these laws, homeless, unemployed black Americans could be arrested and fined. Without employment, they had no way to pay the fines, so they were interred in convict camps, ostensibly working off their debt. From there, many were taken back into indentured slavery.

Vagrancy Laws

In the early 20th century, vagrancy laws made having no visible means of support a misdemeanor. Arresting someone on a vagrancy charge often had to do with loitering, public drunkenness, or criminal association. Some states expanded vagrancy laws to include vagrants being habitually drunk, associating with prostitutes, gambling professionally, or living on someone else’s welfare benefits.

Challenging Vagrancy Example

In 1970, Jacksonville, Florida law deemed “wandering or strolling around from place to place without any lawful purpose or object” illegal. One night, two white women and two black men, all of whom were employed in some fashion, and most also engaged in educating themselves further, were driving from a restaurant to a nightclub. Jacksonville police saw their vehicle stopped near a used car lot, and questioned all of the young people before arresting them on vague charges related to vagrancy laws.

The police said they were not racially motivated in these arrests, though their charge of “prowling by auto” seemed a stretch. The convictions were appealed, and Florida’s vagrancy laws made their way before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court voided the laws as being too vague – they did not give a person fair notice that something they were doing was an illegal act.

In its ruling, the Court made the point that the law’s prohibition against “nightwalking” attempts to make illegal a perfectly normal pastime. Further, the Court stated, “We know, however, from experience that sleepless people often walk at night, perhaps hopeful that sleep-inducing relaxation will result.”

Florida’s attempt to specify that the law applied to people “wandering or strolling … without any lawful purpose or object,” or those “neglecting all lawful business and habitually spending their time by frequenting … places where alcoholic beverages are sold or served,” literally encompasses a great many golf club and city club members.

While walking, strolling, and wandering may be the setting for certain crimes, it also comprises perfectly normal activities that are none of the police’s business. The Court ruled that Florida’s vagrancy laws could not stand, as they encouraged “arbitrary and erratic arrests and convictions,” giving “unfettered discretion” to the police.

Vagrancy and Criminalizing Homelessness and Poverty

Vagrancy laws, where they exist, prohibit such things as loitering, panhandling, sleeping outdoors in public places, gambling, prostitution, and even fortune telling. They also prohibit, however, being a certain type of person, such as being:

  • Homeless
  • Unemployed
  • An addict
  • A prostitute

Statutes that regulate being something, rather than doing something are laws that govern “status crimes.” Many status laws have been deemed unenforceable by higher courts under two premises: (1) they amount to cruel and unusual punishment, and (2) they are vague.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

The idea behind the cruel and unusual punishment issue is that most people aren’t unemployed or homeless because they want to be. Punishing someone – especially by jailing them – for experiencing a complete financial calamity, or for having a mental or physical illness, or for having become addicted to a drug, is simply unfair, adding insult to injury.


Every law in the United States must be written in a way that an ordinary person can figure out just what acts are prohibited, or what acts they are required to do, in order to avoid breaking the law. As in the above example of Florida’s vagrancy laws, failing to clearly state what constitutes a crime leaves room for police officers and judges to arbitrarily enforce or ignore the law.

Breaking Down the Vagaries of Vagrancy

In modern times, most jurisdictions have sought to clean up their laws, replacing the vagueness of vagrancy statutes with laws specifically addressing each undesired activity. One of the most common of these statutes attempts to curb loitering. The definition of loitering is the act of staying in a particular public place for a long time with no valid purpose. This gives business owners and others the ability to keep people from just hanging out in front of their establishments, for instance, harassing customers and passersby.

Public intoxication and disorderly conduct are both illegal, and entail being drunk or under the influence in public, and engaging in activities that disturb the peace of others nearby. These laws require police officers to specify where the arrest took place, and just what the offender was doing to infringe on other people’s right to have a peaceful life.

Panhandling, which is the act of accosting people on the street to beg for money, has become a particularly detested activity in recent years. As some people have made a significant amount of money taking advantage of people’s kindhearted generosity to those in need, the number of panhandlers stationing themselves on street corners has increased.

Aggressive panhandlers fill their coffers by asking or badgering people for donations, often appealing to people’s sympathy. This may be done verbally, though many now use handwritten signs, the presence of children or pets, and other non-verbal appeals. Because of the coercive nature of such panhandling, and the profuse use of this type of begging to “earn a living,” most jurisdictions have established anti-panhandling laws.

All of these laws, which replace catchall vagrancy laws, seek to reduce specific undesirable and harmful acts, rather than criminalizing the act of being a certain way.

Example of Vagrancy vs Specific Laws

Hubert injured his back six years ago. With no health insurance, he was unable to get the treatment he needed, he lost his job when he became unable to perform his duties. Hubert’s life spiraled out of control from there, and he ended up homeless, finding meals once a day at a homeless shelter, but sleeping on the street most nights.

He soon joined a group of other homeless men, which spend their days hanging out in a park, asking passersby for money in order to buy food, or spend a night in a cheap motel. While the city’s old vagrancy law would allow police to randomly pick up homeless people for hanging out in a public place while being poor, that is no longer the case. In this example of vagrancy, the city’s laws allow the police to arrest people for panhandling – hanging out in the park, or on public streets – asking passersby for money.

Lawsuit Filed Against Vagrants

In 2007, the owner of a posh Madison Avenue antiques shop filed a $1 million civil lawsuit against a group of vagrants – homeless men who routinely hung out in front of his business. After more than two years of putting up with the group of “filthy” men making themselves at home in front of his establishment, owner Karl Kemp felt let down by police who did nothing about the problem.

Kemp’s lawsuit complained of the constant presence of one homeless man, with his “island of filthy belongings,” and a group of other unnamed people, who used the sidewalk in front of his establishment as a spittoon, a urinal, and a dressing room. Kemps complaint puts forth that he pays a premium price for the location, which is located “within the heart of New York’s most exclusive Madison Avenue shopping district,” alongside such upscale retailers as Prada and Gucci; yet his customers were forced to walk by and through the group of vagrants.

Kemp attempted to soften his position, which some saw as uncharitable, by noting that he was concerned for the health of the group, as they were often there during very cold weather. He continued to make his point, however, that the vagrants slept on the sidewalk, drank alcohol from open bottles, urinated on the sidewalk or building, and verbally harassed would-be patrons of the antiques store.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Homeless – The state of being without permanent housing.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Loitering – The act of lingering aimlessly in or about a place.
  • Prostitution – The act of engaging in sexual activity in exchange for money.