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What Is Vagrancy?

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  • Written By: Daniel Liden
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 25 October 2016
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Vagrancy is a legal term that is used to refer to a state of having no established home and no solid means of supporting oneself. An individual who lives that type of lifestyle is called a "vagrant." Various laws have existed throughout history to punish vagrants, particularly when the individuals engaging in vagrancy were physically and mentally capable of supporting themselves. The laws regarding vagrants, however, tended to be quite vague and often resulted in unfair and highly individualized treatment of vagrants. Modern treatment of the issue tends to punish individual offenses, such as loitering or aggressive panhandling, instead of generally living as a vagrant.

The legal definitions of vagrancy vary substantially based on history and geographic location. Modern definitions generally define a vagrant as an individual without an established home or means of supporting himself regardless of whether or not he engages in other criminally or morally questionable acts. Traditionally, and in some modern legal systems, however, vagrancy refers to a state of supporting oneself through questionable means, such as gambling or prostitution, regardless of whether or not one has an established residence. The vague legal definitions mean that people engaging in a variety of socially unsavory acts could be prosecuted as "vagrants."

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Many different punishments have, historically, been used to punish vagrancy in its many forms. The goal of such punishment was generally to discourage or prevent such people from remaining in public view through painful physical punishments or through imprisonment. Most modern legal systems do not punish vagrancy as a crime in and of itself, but instead focus on particular offenses common to many vagrants, such as panhandling and loitering. Instead of arresting such people and putting them in a position to consume government money in the legal system, however, many law enforcement workers simply encourage them to leave the area. Many of the vague laws referring to vagrants have been altered or removed because of unfairness and subjectivity.

Individuals who find themselves in a state of vagrancy against their will often have several possible sources of recourse to help them get out of the unfavorable circumstances. Many places have government-operated shelters for homeless individuals, for instance. Some even offer assistance for finding employment. Privately operated institutions, particularly churches, may offer similar sources of aid as well. Only those who really want to change their state of life really benefit from such services, however, and those who choose vagrancy seldom seek help in changing their lifestyle.

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