The Criminalization and Administration of the Homeless: Notes on the Possibilities and Limits of Bureaucratic Engagement


Homelessness is the sum total of our dreams, policies, intentions, errors, omissions, cruelties, kindnesses, all of it recorded, in the flesh, in the life of the streets.

Homelessness is both a condition and a category.


The Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court recently held four New York City officials in contempt for housing homeless families overnight in welfare offices. The officials had relied upon such stopgap measures in order to comply with a New York State Department of Social Services administrative directive which required the provision at emergency temporary shelter to those in need. In the winter months, be-tween twelve and sixty-two families were camping out in government offices, sleeping on tables and chairs. This was the welfare state at its most rudimentary. In a concurring opinion, Judge Milonas mused that it might be appropriate for the four officials to spend a night themselves in the welfare office in order to better understand the conditions to which the home-less families were being consigned. He concluded that “[i]ncreased comprehension of the damaging human impact caused by the city’s nonperformance of the legal mandates would presumably result in an intensification of the officials’ efforts to carry out their responsibilities.”

As the McCain decision illustrates, some members of the judiciary continue to express frustration with city welfare workers’ treatment of the homeless. However, sporadic judicial concern has been overshadowed by the larger trend of the public’s “compassion fatigue” with homelessness.This trend mirrors a collective impatience with the state’s inability (or un-willingness) to reduce poverty through government intervention in the form of conventional welfare programs. The belief that public officials can effectively deal with such large and complex social phenomena appears to be dramatically on the wane.

It is difficult to discern the goals toward which the federal, state, and local governments’ current legislative responses to homelessness are striving. Clearly, no government accepts the premise that everyone has a right to be decently housed. At the other extreme, governments are not to be inactive (or, at least, to be seen as doing nothing). Homelessness has aroused great compassion on the part of many policy makers, but it has also entrenched the belief that, to varying extents, the homeless are to blame for their plight. Administrative responses to homelessness have reflected this ambivalence. Progressive critics cite bureaucracy as the reason why legislative and judicial initiatives fail to house and protect the homeless. Conservative critics blame bureaucracy for failing to reform the homeless and prevent them from harming or harassing others. Critics from all sides assail bureaucracy as a repository for delay, waste, inefficiency, cold-heartedness, corruption, labyrinthine irrationalities of red tape, and a lack of dedication and leadership. More than any of these, however, bureaucracy in the welfare state has come to signify the remoteness of political authority.

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