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What Is a Vagrant?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Vagrant is a term that isn't used as often as it once was, although there are still laws in many places dealing with vagrancy. People use the term "vagrant" when they want to describe a particular kind of criminal homelessness. Usually this is defined based on whether or not the individual has the physical and mental ability to support himself. Those who can work, but choose instead to live a homeless lifestyle, are sometimes branded by certain legal systems as vagrants.

Vagrancy laws were generally created as a way to control street crime, or as a way to, "clean up the street." Some communities believed that homelessness, in general, was a menace of sorts, and they created laws to discourage it. Sometimes these laws were enforced very strictly, while in other cases, they might not be enforced at all. Often, more affluent communities might have more stringent vagrant enforcement, while less affluent communities under the same legal system sometimes ignored it.

Many vagrant laws handle a broader range of behaviors besides homelessness. For example, a person might be charged with vagrancy simply for being drunk in public, or engaging in certain illegal activities. There have also been cases where someone who isn't actually able to work might get a vagrancy charge anyway, even though this isn't necessarily legally acceptable in most cases.

Throughout history, experts suggest there have been incidents where vagrancy laws were sometimes abused by authorities. For example, sometimes they were used as a way to control minority populations or criminalize poverty so that poorer individuals would automatically have fewer rights than other individuals. Legal experts suggest that many vagrancy laws are defined very broadly, and sometimes authorities have used them as a way to charge people when there wasn't necessarily an obvious crime taking place.

In many cases, legal systems have struck down laws regarding vagrant behavior because they gave police too much leeway to identify a vagrant. When laws were too open-ended, sometimes police might identify a person as a vagrant simply because the community wanted an excuse to get rid of him. Overall, many countries have softened their stances on vagrancy over time. Some governments have become more concerned with providing assistance to people without homes instead of trying to find reasons to make them leave the community. This isn't always the case, though, and vagrancy charges still happen from time to time in certain areas.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Saraq90 — On Oct 20, 2011

Some homeless people, also known as vagrants, do try to get help from government agencies and missionaries in order to start a new life. But there are so many people needing help, and so many places without the resources to help everyone, a lot of people are probably playing a waiting game. The homeless that are mentally and/or physically ill should be getting help from the government first and foremost, because they need the most help. I have several family members that are mentally ill and if the government and my family were not helping them out right now, they would probably have no choice but to be on the streets, or at least live in a shelter.

It is difficult to find a job once you have been out of work for a while. Employer’s get suspicious and are less likely to hire you when you have more than a few months of unemployment. If there is a reason for your unemployment, like a mental or physical illness, many employer’s seem to think that these people would be more of a liability than an asset to their company, without giving them even one chance. The ironic part of this is that people would not have such a huge gap in their employment if an employer would take a chance on them. Also, many employer’s want people with previous experience, but they do not take into account that some people do not have experience because no one will give them the chance, therefore they can not gain experience.

I am all for people living a better life, but who is to say that having a job and a house and a car is a better life? That may be considered better to some, but not to everyone. Jesus lived a beautiful, honorable, inspiring life, but would have probably been labeled a vagrant by societies standards. It is important for us all to be productive and help each other, but who is to say that homeless people are not productive and do not help others? There are plenty of productive people who are homeless and unproductive people who are not. Lets just love and help one another, instead of judging each other.

By snickerish — On Oct 20, 2011

I think homeless people have been stereotyped for long enough. Enough with putting all or most homeless people in the vagrant category. Yes, some do have drug and alcohol problems, but who doesn’t have some type of problem? Just because someone lives on the streets and does not work does not make them criminals and/or a burden or useless to society.

Homeless people are just like the rest of us, just live differently, some of them are friendly and stay out of trouble, while others are mean and cause trouble; there are good people and not so good people in and from and are going to every walk of life. If they are harming others and/or engaging in criminal misconduct, then by all means, let the law step in and lock them up and do whatever else is fitting of their crimes, but other than the one’s who harm others and/or engage in crimes, let them be. They are just trying to make it through this life, like the rest of us. Last time I checked it is not a criminal act to live on the streets and to ask for help.

I actually try to give money to homeless people here and there, when I have the extra money to do so. I know that they may use it for something they do not need, but I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. If I were in their shoes, I would probably want to drink, to forget about my troubles for a while. Also, not everyone that is homeless drinks, does drugs, or have committed a crime. Unless you are living their life, how do you know what goes on in it? People love to assume things and to negatively judge people, most of those same people probably would not dare live a day in the people they judge lives.

By BabaB — On Oct 19, 2011

I have a friend who works in a library in the downtown part of a small city. They are located on a rail and bus line. She tells me about vagrants who come into the library, especially when it is rainy or cold.

This is a public library, so they have a right to be there, all day if they wish. They sit and sleep in the soft chairs and never read a book.

The library can only call the police, if they are disturbing the peace in some way, which does happen sometimes.

By BoniJ — On Oct 18, 2011

It seems that these days, vagrancy is tolerated more than it has been in the past. If a person is involved in actual criminal activity or is bodily bothering another person, he'll likely be arrested.

But many people on our streets today have problems like mental illness, challenges from war injuries, or are just loners with no money or food.

But I surely agree that they need help from agencies, and the answer is not to be found on the streets.

One more category I have noticed are those who simply want a different style of life and I guess they have a right to live on the streets.

By sweetPeas — On Oct 18, 2011

During the Great Depression, many hungry people were driven off the city streets. Maybe because so many people felt guilty seeing them hungry and homeless.

Maybe that's why some of them went to the nearby neighborhoods searching for food. My grandmother told me that people used to come to her back door, by the kitchen and ask for some food. She always gave them something.

By Crispety — On Oct 17, 2011

@Kylee07drg- I agree with you. A lot of vagrants really have problems with drug and alcohol abuse and some might even suffer from mental illness which is why giving them a few dollars will not help their situation because many of these people really need to be in a rehab center where they can get better, but those centers are really expensive and it is a shame that there were not more programs that could help these people.

If a vagrant is suffering from mental illness they really need a comprehensive approach in order for them to get better. Giving them medication along with counseling will help them stabilize their situation, but the person really has to want to make this change.

Believe it or not as hard as being a vagrant must be for most people, some people prefer that lifestyle than a traditional lifestyle because this is familiar to them and there are no expectations of them.

It is really a sad situation, because I am sure with the right circumstances many of these people could live more fulfilling lives filled with more dignity.

By kylee07drg — On Oct 17, 2011

@wavy58 - The person who really wants to have a new life will be doing something to make that happen that doesn’t include begging for money. It will take far more than twenty, fifty, or even a hundred bucks to start again, and homeless people know this.

The only way for them to get a fresh start is to get help from either a government agency or a mission house. People who are really trying will be actively doing something to better their lives. They will be participating in programs that will help them land a job, or they will be taking advantage of government housing.

The best thing you could do would be to donate money to mission houses or reputable charities for the homeless. You will never solve an individual’s problems by personally handing them a few bucks. If you give to an organization, you will be positively affecting the lives of those who want to improve.

By wavy58 — On Oct 16, 2011

I often struggle with distinguishing a vagrant from someone who is simply homeless due to no fault of their own. I want to help the person who is in dire need, but I don’t want to give money to someone who will just use it on drugs or alcohol.

I would like to help someone who has no resources for starting a new life. I don’t dare invite a stranger into my home, because con artists are good at what they do, and I don’t want to risk getting cleaned out or even murdered.

How do you tell someone who really is in need apart from someone who will only take advantage of you and use your gift for evil? If I knew this, I would be more willing to give.

By OeKc05 — On Oct 15, 2011

In cities full of nothing but sidewalks and buildings, I wish that vagrants would go to shelters instead of begging on the streets. I visited the heart of Nashville once, and dozens of vagrants came up to me asking for money within a stretch of just a few blocks. I was on vacation and didn’t have any cash to spare, because it all had to go to the hotel bill and gas.

It is kind of intimidating to walk in areas like this. If I lived there, I could not imagine the walk to work every day. I felt ashamed for not giving them any money, but I really did need it to get back home. The people who pass them by each day must feel horrible.

By Oceana — On Oct 14, 2011

@sunshined - I know a man like that also. He lives in a fairly large college town, but all the residents know about him, and everyone refers to him by name.

He walks down the big highway every morning, picking up cans to trade for cash. He carries a plastic bag and a big stick, and that is all he takes with him. He rests under overpasses.

People have stopped and offered him rides before, but he won’t take them. He knows where he’s going, and he doesn’t need a vehicle to get there.

He looks very old and walks stiffly. His hair is wild and sticks out everywhere. He looks like someone you wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley, but he is polite and keeps to himself.

I’m sure if he lived in a big city, he would probably have been deemed a vagrant by now. This medium-sized town just lets him be, because they know he isn’t harmful.

By LisaLou — On Oct 14, 2011

How to deal with vagrants is a situation our city has been working through the last few years. We live in a climate that has cold winters and many of these homeless people were building makeshift tents along the river with unsafe ways of heating them.

There was quite a bit of controversy of how to deal with this. I am not sure what was considered illegal about it, but it definitely cased some trouble. There were many different views of the best way to handle the situation.

Many of these vagrants will use the local missions when the weather gets bad, but a lot of them don't like to go there either. It is a situation that is not as cut and dry as it looks like it should be on paper.

By golf07 — On Oct 14, 2011

My husband works construction building and repairing bridges and has contact with several vagrants. Many of them live under the bridges or close to the areas he is working.

He has had many conversations with some of them throughout the years. Each story is different and not one situation is ever the same.

There have been many of them that he has talked to who have chosen this lifestyle because they don't want the commitment of getting up and going to work everyday.

They realize that in order to have a house, vehicle and things that we consider normal, takes persistent work, and they are not willing to do that.

This isn't the case for all of them by any means, and is something you really don't know until you hear their story.

By sunshined — On Oct 13, 2011

I think the definition of vagrant probably does depend on where you live. My cousin lives in a very small town where everybody in town knows everybody else.

There is a man who lives in this town that would probably be considered a vagrant if he lived in the city.

He has lived in this town his whole life and the people know him and know his history. They are just used to it and don't think much about it.

I don't think his style of living would be permitted in many cities, but works for him in the town he lives in and is familiar with.

By backdraft — On Oct 13, 2011

The last part of this article makes a great point. Often people are identified as vagrants who are people that the police would rather not deal with. They try to uphold unspoken community norms by essentially kicking out anyone who is deemed to be an outsider.

I have a lot of sympathy for people in this situation (the vagrants, not the cops) because my grandfather was a kind of traveling vagrant during the great depression. he had lots of stories of being scared, intimidated, chased out and even beat up by cops who decided that he did not fit in in their town. He was only looking for work, and being very polite about it, but his rough appearance and hard circumstances led many officers of the law to think he was a threat.

We should keep an open mind about who is a vagrant and who is not. I know lots of people who own their own homes who create bigger problems in a community than any vagrant I've ever known

By ZsaZsa56 — On Oct 12, 2011

I know that vagrant has a pretty specific legal definition, but I think that in the broader culture we often assign the label to people who simply choose to live lives that are a little out of the mainstream. In many cases we call people vagrants who simply choose to travel, often in simple and sustainable ways, and who have no interest in settling down in a little house with a white picket fence.

In most cases even people who are legally defined as vagrants are not hurting anything. Homelessness is a complicated issue, but generally these people do not degrade the spaces they occupy. They just choose to live differently and they have all the rights and privileges that any other citizen of this country has. We expect everyone to live the same kind of lives but vagrants choose to live a little differently.

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