A moment of transition: vagrancy and the homelessness problem

Stream: Perspectives on homelessness
Date: Monday, 9 September 2019
Time: 11.30 am – 12.30 pm


Many scholars have acknowledged the ‘zeitgeist’ of the 1970s, with ‘the Whitlam years’ standing almost as a trope of radical social reform. It was certainly a seminal period in the history of homelessness. The Homeless Persons Assistance Act of 1974 was the first acknowledgement by an Australian government of responsibility for the welfare of homeless people; and in that decade some state governments attempted to decriminalise vagrancy - ‘insufficient means’ and public drunkenness were repealed in a number of jurisdictions. And yet, while these two shifts are well known there has been little research interrogating their emergence, the relationship between them and the somewhat ambiguous implications of this moment in the long history of homelessness in Australia.

This paper seeks to explore the interplay between attempts to decriminalise vagrancy and the emergence of homelessness as a problem, focussing in particular on how these impulses affected people who were not seen as ‘homeless’ at this time. The fact that homelessness was understood to be almost exclusively an affliction of white adult men at the moment of its discovery had immediate and enduring consequences for women, Indigenous people and young people. This paper raises questions about the long term impacts of this moment that the larger project from which it is drawn will explore in depth.


Anne O'Brien (Presenter), UNSW Sydney
Anne O’Brien is Professor of History in the School of Humanities and Languages, UNSW. She has published widely in the histories of welfare, philanthropy, gender, Indigenous policy and religion. Her current research project, ‘Homelessness and Homeless people: an Australian history’, is being conducted with Heather Holst and was awarded an ARC Discovery Project grant 2018-2020. For a full publication list, including studies on the history of homelessness see https://research.unsw.edu.au/people/professor-anne-philomena-obrien